It’s been two years since the hurricane-force derecho storm wiped out power and left a path of damage throughout Washington County. Through strengthening communication and volunteer gathering, the Washington County Emergency Management Agency hopes to be better off in the event that any disaster like it should ever happen again.
The EMA, currently weathering a storm of its own with discussions about putting it under the authority of the sheriff’s office, is nearly finished publishing the latest version of its emergency plan. The Marietta Times recently viewed the plan to determine what changes have been made.
Though considered by officials to be a continuously updated work in progress, changes since the storm, with everything from monitoring water levels to keeping the fringes of the county connected, are components of what is supposed to make Washington County stronger and more prepared to fight in an emergency.
“We do feel that we’re better off than before,” said EMA Director Jeff Lauer. “You can never truly be prepared because you don’t know when the next disaster is.”
Lauer said the full plan, which is several inches thick in terms of paper, has always existed, but throughout time changes and improvements are made, often in response to certain events like the storm. It hit on June 29, 2012, knocking out power and cell phone coverage for days or weeks for those in the county during a heat wave. Obtaining basics like fuel and ice were a challenge for most and officials said afterward they felt they weren’t prepared and communication throughout the county was not as organized as it needed to be.
County Commissioner Ron Feathers stressed that the EMA’s largest responsibility is communication when it comes to making the county more prepared for an emergency.
“A lot of the misconception is that we can completely take charge in an emergency,” Feathers said. “We have 18 fire departments, and they are the commanders on the ground, but we need the volunteers, we need to know what their responsibilities are, and the EMA is there to make sure everyone can communicate and get things done.”
One of the biggest improvements made to the EMA’s plan is connectivity, as in the past two years, volunteer fire departments and rural agencies previously at the mercy of simple landlines are now ready to combat downed power lines.
“Now, every agency, fire departments out as far as Grandview, will have strengthened radio systems and towers to prevent from being disconnected, and generators in place where they didn’t have them before,” Lauer said.
The Emergency Operations Center on Davis Avenue was one of the biggest components, and after its recent opening, will serve as a central point of command in case of an emergency.
“There is on-site fuel storage and several generators, and it is fully equipped with phones, furniture, and as a permanent place where you can walk into it at 3 a.m. and get to work,” Lauer said.
The facility is equipped to operate year-round, with backed up phone lines and stored cell phones to create a contingency in case of a power outage through the use of Multi-Agency Radio Communications System.
“We also have a copy of everything that’s in the courthouse (database) that is a redundancy stored here in a system,” Lauer said. “So if it goes out, we still have it here.”
In the event of a county-wide emergency, it becomes as important to make sure the general public is informed too, Lauer said.
“One of the things I’d like to see done now that the center is in full swing, is to see a volunteer from each township to be ready and willing to serve at the EOC,” Feathers said. “We have something like 18 phones, but I’d like to see a volunteer-a trustee would probably be the best-where they would be the ones to go to the EOC when there’s a county-wide emergency so that as calls come in with information or needs, they would know who to call.”
The notification and warning systems that various agencies use to alert people via phone is also in the process of undergoing changes.
“We’re going to move into a new system called Everbridge,” Lauer said. “It’s strong, and it accounts for everyone without a home phone or who is unlisted, because they can easily register it with us.”
And through the power of social media, that EMA has launched a Facebook page and is in the process of launching a Twitter account.
“We never had social media when the derecho hit, but in April we launched a Facebook (page) and then eventually will put in a Twitter with the Local Emergency Planning Committee to send out monthly tips to prepare for a disaster,” Lauer said. “We can also put info out there that’s another avenue for people to receive updates in an emergency.”
The county has also installed rain gages along water bodies in the county, like Duck Creek and near the Beverly bridge, that monitors water levels and can be tracked online for flooding purposes.
“The public, especially if you’re near the area, can use the gages too, right off our website,” Lauer said. “It shows when water levels are getting to a point of flooding faster.”
When disaster strikes, it never seems to be very difficult to find volunteers willing to pitch in, but Lauer said that response in an emergency can often be chaotic.
Through LEPC, the county re-established the Volunteer Reception Center, designed to streamline volunteer work and provide assistance faster.
“There’s a core of volunteers that set up the center, and instead of everyone going to where the tree fell or where something happens, they’d go to the VRC,” said Lisa Valentine, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which partnered with the Washington County Health Department and LEPC to train volunteers.
Places like the O’Neill Center have been designated as locations where a VRC can be set up, and is designed to be able to quickly assign volunteers to appropriate places to help.
“Spontaneous volunteers would go to one place instead of a bunch of places and get licenses, contact information, and an armband, so wherever they’re going, people would know they’d been vetted and what their skills are,” Valentine said.
Valentine said the program had its own presence in the county after 9/11, but it had to be re-established recently.
“There was a lot of interest in it after 9/11 from Homeland Security, but then money dried up, and these things take money,” she said. “So it’s been a new commitment to keep it important.”
The Washington County Health Department works alongside the EMA for instances of disease or virus outbreaks or any response to an influx in care.
Lauer said that already in place are various Alternate Care Centers at places like Washington State Community College and the Marietta Township Recreation Center that give hospitals the chance to quickly set up medical facilities to combat overcrowding.
Point of Dispensing (POD) Programs are also in place to allows the county to set up locations throughout the area to quickly dispense medicine or vaccinations.
Many of the recent changes to EMA services include numerous training programs, especially for firefighters and first responders.
“Our local fire chiefs have now been trained through the National Incident Management System to respond to health crises,” Lauer said.
The training is a federal level system developed out of FEMA to train state and local agencies to manage incidents involving all threats and hazards regardless of cause, size, location, or complexity to reduce loss of life and property.
The EMA also has been regularly holding table discussions with local agencies to play out real world situations to learn how to effectively respond in case they would ever occur.
“We’ve been holding table discussions with plants and energy companies where we sit down and go through an entire situation or crisis and go through exactly what would need to happen,” Lauer said. “Situations with Washington Electric Cooperative were performed so we would all be able to go through another outage as efficiently as possible.”
Lauer stressed that though the plan is both constantly being updated and available for the public, the agency tries to frequently publish separate literature to keep Washington County’s citizens safe in case of a county-wide emergency.
“There are always challenges you can’t control, like making sure people have cash on them and a full tank of gas,” Lauer said.
Packets on procedures for homeowners, from flood evacuation plans to how to respond to a terrorist threat, and instructions for people with disabilities that makes it easier for them to find assistance, have been incorporated into the plan for more specified parties.