Officials concoct island emergencies

While North Whidbey Island first responders generally work together in small teams, the taciturn heroes will have the rare opportunity to combine their expertise into larger teams when they respond to a larger than normal series of simultaneous incidents next month during a full scale training exercise.

The last large-scale exercise for North Whidbey was two years ago and involved only one large incident. On Oct. 15, the stakes will have been upped considerably.

“We’re going to give them a scenario where they can practice in a larger format than what they normally do,” said Mike Simmons, Island County Department of Emergency Management emergency planner. “Last time all the action was in one place. This year we’re going to have four dispersed incident scenes.”

First response communication and coordination will be crucial for success, Simmons said. Fire and rescue crews from North and Central Whidbey will participate, as well as Whidbey General Hospital, I-COM, Island Transit, amateur radio operators, and the Oak Harbor Fire Department and other city departments. The city of Oak Harbor will activate its emergency operations center.

“Everyone has a part to play in this,” the emergency planner said. “Whidbey General and Whidbey General EMS are prime players. This is a chance for them to take multiple patients over a short span of time, forcing them to use their mass casualty plans and initiate external hospital coordination and planning.”

With the exercise, Simmons said the goal is to embed opportunities for the Coupeville and Oak Harbor Community Emergency Response Teams to use their acquired skills with staff and other players.

“There is a piece of this exercise for the Red Cross disaster teams and a large task for the amateur radio operators who frequently provide emergency communications across the county,” Simmons added.

The four incident scenes will be spread from Coupeville near the intersection of Engle and Hill roads, to the intersection of Arnold and Monroe Landing roads — where a traffic accident will be simulated — and on to Oak Harbor to adequately stress coordination and resources, and spread the first responders thin.

“This activity may block or partially block one or more roads as a real incident would,” Simmons said. “We are asking motorists to be careful and patient while we do this valuable training. The final two scenarios will be set up at the city shops in Oak Harbor.”

Preparation for the exercise will begin earlier, but the actual exercise will kick off at 6 p.m. and conclude at approximately 9 p.m. Preparation will begin before 6 p.m.

“We chose Monday because a bulk of our first responders are volunteers and it takes advantage of what is already their practice day,” the emergency planner said. “This will be an excellent training exercise.”

In a carefully calculated training event, the timeframe was also no accident, as Simmons said the darkness and possible frigid temperature will add an element of realism. One piece of the exercise will find the county and city working cooperatively with Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, which will have its own emergency operations center and other response elements coordinating with civilian counterparts.

“We have been planning this with them to make sure their training goals are included,” Simmons said.

The exercise costs will be partially paid for with Homeland Security and All Hazards grant funds, helping to ease the financial burden on various first responder organizations.

“This is a good way to use that money,” Simmons said. “This is a chance to explore new areas of cooperation and find the gaps and training needs. Each year we learn something new.”

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