Friday, November 30, 2007
On Friday, May 11, at 1000 hrs, the Washoe County (Nev.) Sheriff’s Department was notified of a collision between a U-Haul truck and a van in a residential area. This was the beginning of a region-wide drill that would not only include coordination and response by local public safety agencies, but also the actual evacuation of residents in a large subdivision surrounding the location. It would not be a tabletop exercise, but a real response to a simulated emergency.
Neither the sheriff’s deputies nor fire department first responders knew any details regarding the drill until approximately 30 minutes prior to dispatch. This presented a genuine sense of urgency and made the experience “real time” for the agencies.
The drill, “Operation Safe Neighborhood,” was a success. Community members learned much about emergency preparation, and participating agencies discovered what it takes to prepare for such an event.
The Hourly Rundown
Upon the deputies’ arrival at the Incline Village subdivision, they observed the accident and multiple injured victims. They also observed a colored plume of gas and liquid leaking from the rear of the U-Haul truck. Due to this observation, the deputies called for the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District’s Incline Fire Department, to respond. The deputies backed out and notified the victims that they would be assisting them when the fire department arrived to assess the situation. They believed they were witnessing an unknown hazardous material spillage. The liquid and gas were later identified as “chlorine.”
When the fire department arrived, responders confirmed the gas and liquid were hazardous and donned the appropriate gear. They also called for mutual aid from surrounding agencies. The Reno Fire Department and the Placer County (Calif.) Fire Department from Tahoe City commenced their response.
At 1030 hrs it was decided the area downwind from the accident site had to be evacuated as soon as possible. The Emergency Alert System was activated and a message from the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection Chief was broadcast over all radio and television stations. In addition, the City Watch reverse-911 was activated to call 335 residents and advise them of the evacuation order. The Community Emergency Response Team was called in to go door to door and notify residents.
It also was decided to open a shelter at Incline High School, so the Sierra Nevada Chapter of the American Red Cross in Reno was notified, along with the Washoe County Animal Control and the North Lake Tahoe Pet Network. Residents were advised to leave, take their pets and proceed to the shelter. Deputies stationed along the evacuation route directed residents to a staging area where many of the agencies had set up displays and informational booths to assist evacuees and provide them with food and drinks.
By 1100 hrs, mutual aid arrived and the accident victims were decontaminated and sent to the local hospital for treatment. The hospital, as part of the drill, called in extra personnel to handle the individuals injured in the accident. It also followed through with hazardous material treatment protocols.
At 1330 hrs, the drill concluded and residents were allowed to return to their homes. And at 1530 hrs, the Red Cross opened a shelter at the high school and 45 volunteers stayed overnight to simulate evacuees and their needs, including their pets’ needs, while in shelter.
Setting the Stage
The planning for this drill began on March 2 at the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Headquarters in Incline Village. Captain Chris Megenheimer organized the meeting along with consultant Bill Schroeder. Schroeder coordinated the state’s first evacuation drill in Glenbrook, Nev., in August 2004. In that drill, fire agencies, law enforcement, the Red Cross and search and rescue personnel were organized and coordinated in an effort that resulted in the evacuation of the community due to a “large forest fire.”
The participants of this drill, only the second in the state, included a representative from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department, the Washoe County Emergency Manager, the Washoe County Road Department, the Red Cross, the Sierra Pacific Power Company, the Incline Village General Improvement District, the Incline Fire Department chief and the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspaper.
At that meeting, the committee decided to pursue the community-wide evacuation exercise and established goals to test mutual aid agreements and communication between agencies, alert notification systems, and the evacuation plan by moving a neighborhood and determining shelter capacities.
In order to acquire community participation, a letter was sent to every resident in Incline Village, advising them of the date of the drill and encouraging their participation. This letter was mailed on April 1, signed by the captain of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department, Incline Village Substation and the chief of the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District.
Another planning meeting was held on April 6, with additional participants from the North Lake Tahoe Pet Network and the Incline Village Hospital. At this meeting the drill was named “Operation Safe Neighborhood.” Following this meeting, a letter was sent to the residents of the area that was to be evacuated. This letter informed the residents of the simulated accident, the time for their evacuation and the location to which they were to proceed after they left their homes. The letter also encouraged them to participate so that both they and the agencies could realistically evaluate the evacuation plan. Without their participation, it would be only an interagency drill.
Additional planning meetings were held on April 20 and May 8. During these sessions, participant and shelter evaluation forms were written, to be distributed to the evacuees as part of the exercise critique.
By the end of April, timelines were established for all aspects of the drill. The schedule was divided up into three areas: the hazmat response exercise, the evacuation exercise and the shelter exercise. Each schedule listed the events and proposed times that each would begin and end.
Coordinators were assigned for each of the specific exercise responsibilities. Controllers were assigned to evaluate each of the areas where there would be a response by an agency. On May 8, the plan was finalized and the scenario that was to be given to dispatch on May 11 was written. By this time, the planning group had grown to 29 individuals.
Following the drill, a roundtable critique was held with representatives from all participating agencies and representatives of the residents who had evacuated. The drill was deemed a success by the Washoe County Emergency Manager, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department and the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District. These agencies noted the positive outcomes of the drill, but also areas needing improvement. Overall, the exercise is an example of cooperation among public safety agencies and addresses the primary concern of local residents: evacuation planning. However, as this was a real-time experience, there was difficulty in contacting CERT team members because they were either away from home or didn’t answer their telephones. In a tabletop exercise, this isn’t of concern, but in an actual evacuation, notification is very important and timely.
The reverse-911 was supposed to notify 335 residents, but 102 of those calls failed. However, the Emergency Alert System worked very well with all of the radio and television stations in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area simultaneously broadcasting the evacuation order at 1030 hrs, only a half-hour after the dispatch was sent to responders.
As in most emergency situations involving multiple agencies, communication was a problem because there wasn’t a common radio frequency. With units responding across state and county lines, each had a different emergency frequency to utilize within their own jurisdiction, but there wasn’t a common frequency between states and counties.
Lesson learned: Mutual-aid responders didn’t know the location to respond to and continuously asked for directions. It was decided there was a need for mutual aid responders to receive maps as they responded into the community. This could be done by having personnel with maps stationed at key community-entry locations, and as the units arrived, they could get a map and even ask specific directions.
Finally, the Pet Network had never coordinated with the Washoe County Animal Control. The groups decided to continue dialogue and coordinate resources so that in an actual emergency, each would be able to provide services to individuals with specific needs, such as those with large animals and those with small pets.
Public agencies have, until this time, worked together and coordinated their responses to meet their objectives. However, in this exercise, one of the objectives was to coordinate an actual evacuation of residents in a specific area. This added an element that’s never really tested in the homeland security, emergency fire or hazmat drills. The addition of community members, not paid or volunteer actors, adds realism to the drill. No one can determine exactly how they will respond given such a situation.
Tabletop exercises are needed, but they tend to be sterile and don’t reflect reality, such as efforts to call out volunteers who don’t answer their telephones. Agencies must not only prepare themselves, but the communities in which they serve. It will lead to a safer neighborhood.
Steps for Planning & Executing an Evac Drill
Set up an initial meeting with local agencies to define objectives. Bring in all agencies and private businesses that would be impacted by a community emergency (e.g., the gas, power and telephone companies, etc.)
Define the area in which the drill will be held, and develop an emergency scenario.
Establish a lead agency for the drill. (This is usually a law enforcement or fire agency.)
Set a time for the drill to commence and end.
To maximize participation, establish a date for the drill and send letters, signed by first responder agency heads, to residents in the defined evacuation area. These letters should list the date and time their participation in the evacuation would be expected to occur, and how they will be notified of the evacuation. They should be told where they are expected to go as part of the evacuation. Plans must also be made by the agencies to accept those evacuees..
Make this drill educational for the entire community by using the media to promote the value of such types of drills and need for emergency preparation.
Define specific activities necessary to complete the objectives and assign individuals to be responsible for meeting those goals. Assign experienced controllers to evaluate the specific activities and responses during the drill. Arrange for mutual aid, if necessary, but don’t advise them of the scenario’s specifics.
Public information officers should prepare media packets and confirm media outlets that will be at the drill.
On the day of the drill, provide the scenario to first responders so they can proceed to the defined area and commence the activities. Don’t give the scenario to first responders until a short time before the drill begins.
Following the drill, set aside an area where residents and first responders can come together to discuss and broadly critique the drill. This should be done immediately following the completion of the exercise.
Establish a date for a formal critique so agency action plans can be developed to address problem areas.
A Real Catastrophe Close to Home
We held the evacuation drill in May at the north shore of Lake Tahoe. At the time, no one envisioned that in June a massive forest fire would erupt at the south shore. The Angora Fire proved to be the most devastating fire in recent Lake Tahoe history. More than 280 structures were destroyed and more than 2,000 people were evacuated from the area.
Unfortunately, the south-shore agencies had never executed a community evacuation drill. Local law enforcement, fire personnel and forest service responders had to put together a plan on the run to not only fight the fire, but also evacuate those whose lives were in danger.
Currently, community emergency planning is a high priority on the south shore and is in progress.