In case of emergency...

“Your mission, if you choose to accept it, will be ...”

There was a lot of good-natured joking as the City of Port Orchard department heads opened the scenario for Thursday’s earthquake/emergency drill. City engineer Larry Curles appeared to capture the flavor of the event with his Mission: Impossible misquote. For most, this was the first time in years they participated a full emergency “walk-through,” complete with hypothetical crises — such as a large crack appearing in the middle of the Blackjack Creek Bridge.

The city holds duck-and-cover earthquake drills every year. However, this year — largely because one had never been done in the new city hall — the city opted to do a more hands-on drill to test the readiness of its Emergency Operations Command (EOC).

The EOC is an operations center that exists in large plastic boxes until it’s needed. When a significant emergency strikes — the emergency could be anything that causes widespread damage and panic — the boxes get hauled out and the contents are set up in the Port Orchard Municipal Courtroom. Each box is assigned to a specific staff member and has all the supplies needed to get through a full-blown crisis situation.

“That way they can just grab their box and run if we have an emergency,” said Port Orchard police Sgt. Dennis McCarthy.

McCarthy is the EOC operations commander, which means it’s his responsibility to make sure everything goes smoothly. It’s also his job to man a partially set up EOC during stand-by situations — essentially any situation that had the potential to be an emergency, but hadn’t reached that level yet.

On Sept. 11, following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade towers, McCarthy spent the day sitting in the courtroom surrounded by EOC gear and televisions tuned to CNN.

“I just sat there for eight hours until I was told to stand down,” he said.

Considering it was the first time in more than three years a full EOC drill had been done at the city, Thursday’s exercise went very smoothly. The entire building participated in a duck-and-cover drill at 9:45 a.m., after which all staff were evacuated. McCarthy did a sweep of the building to make sure everyone was out, then gave the signal that began the EOC portion of the exercise.

Along with regular city staff, representatives from other agencies were on scene to participate and observe.

“At least it’s not raining,” Sharon Aker joked as she was let back inside. Aker is the assistant director for the county’s department of emergency management. She came to observe and to make sure emergency protocols were followed.

As it turned out, it appeared the city participants needed very little guidance.

The EOC boxes were hauled out and set up in less than 15 minutes, although much melodramatic “oof-ing” accompanied the task. As soon as the team was surrounded in a veritable forest of easels and laminated event management boards, the scenario packets were opened.

The event schedule had the first disasters starting just after the initial “earthquake,” although the scenario didn’t really begin in real time until after 10 a.m. McCarthy said such discrepancies are just part of the exercise — because the team took over the courtroom during regular business hours, the team leaders had to first make sure there were no court proceedings underway. Besides, he continued, establishing the EOC under everyday conditions is very different than trying to set it up under disaster conditions.

“One thing we have to keep in mind is in a real emergency, it’s going to take us a couple of hours to get set up,” McCarthy said. “We’d only be sending our officers out to the major, major stuff while we’re getting set up.”

That meant in a real emergency, only one out of the first few “disasters” on the scenario sheet would have warranted immediate attention. The “fire” at 9:55 a.m. would top the priority list and require several fire units to bring under control. The rubble in the streets, “reported” at 9:59 and 10:23 would have likely been ignored, as would a “non-injury collision” at 10:22. The broken water main probably would get some attention, although McCarthy said the primary focus in every emergency is always people.

With that in mind, the “report” of a large crack in the Blackjack Creek Bridge called for immediate response.

As would be expected in such an exercise, there was some debate over who was qualified to judge the stability of the bridge and how to close it if it wasn’t safe.

“If it’s not safe in the eyes of the assessors, we’ll err on the side of caution,” said Sgt. Mark Duncan, serving as EOC incident commander in Chief Al Townsend’s absence. “So take as many people as it needs to keep that bridge from falling into the creek.”

There was another debate over the “report” of a gas smell at South Kitsap Mall. It was unclear as to what priority should be assigned to a possible gas leak, especially with cracking bridges and working fires to worry about as well. In the end, firefighters were “diverted” from the hypothetical fire to evacuate the mall. Meanwhile, the gas company was called to check for a possible leak, leaving the rest of the city staffers to tackle other problems.

All the debate, McCarthy said, is considered a healthy part of the exercise, particularly since this is the first time it’s been done.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion (before), but until you get in there with everyone, you don’t get a sense of the dynamics,” he said.

Every possible issue was brought up and hammered out, from the space allotted to the call center to the likely availability of food stores. Even the potential problem of persistent and nuisance callers was addressed — with possibly thousands of panicked people calling and radioing for help, the team members agreed phone-hoggers could not be tolerated.

“Rob, you get the lucky job of handling anybody who has our inside numbers — like council members — and telling them to mind their own business,” Duncan said, addressing city planner Rob Wenman, the designated public information officer for the exercise.

In reality, McCarthy said, the city’s elected officials would probably not be the problem. Most of them would likely already be on-site in a conference room, ready to pass any needed emergency ordinances. The problem would likely come from outside — residents calling constantly asking for updated information, panicked citizens with nowhere to go, even local and national news crews.

“We’re not letting in anyone we don’t know,” said Duncan, after someone laughingly asked what staff would do if Geraldo Rivera showed up in town.

Just in case the telephone lines go down or become overloaded, the city also has an arrangement with local HAM radio operators to have two at city hall at all times in the case of a real emergency.

Lauri Pitman, who oversees the HAM radio portion of the EOC for South Kitsap, said she has over 40 operators on her list. As soon as she gets paged by the city, she explained, she starts calling local operators until she gets enough to staff the EOC.

“If the phones are down and we don’t hear from anyone, we know we’re supposed to turn our radios on and see what’s going on,” Pitman said.

The city is also working on a grant for mobile devices that would allow for instantaneous communication between the city and Fire District 7, further reducing the demand on emergency circuits.

The exercise finally wrapped up shortly before 11 a.m. McCarthy said even though the exercise didn’t take all that long, it was invaluable practice that let staff get the feel of an emergency situation.

The city has two more similar drills planned this year — one in June and one in October, followed by a third next January. One of those three drills, McCarthy said, will be a full EOC “dress rehearsal.”

A dress rehearsal, he explained, closely simulates an emergency in real time. Crews will have to dispatch to various sites around the city to handle crises, then report back to the EOC.

Dress rehearsals are much more expensive than walk-throughs, McCarthy said, because the city will have to pay overtime to everyone involved. However, because grace under fire is only something that can be learned through practice, McCarthy said they are an important part of emergency preparedness training.

“When it first starts, it’ll be fever pitch,” he explained.

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