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County, city agencies prepare

Firefighters from Puget Sound Federal Fire Department based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, wearing spaceman-like “Level A” suits, undergo a decontamination scrub-down during a recent “gross” or “field” contamination drill  at the base. The suits contain one-hour oxygen tanks so the users can breathe clean air. After the Level A team is cleansed, the Level B team doing the cleaning goes through the same process. Depending on the contaminating agent, the entire set of equipment, tanks and all, may have to be discarded. - Marcie Miller
Firefighters from Puget Sound Federal Fire Department based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, wearing spaceman-like “Level A” suits, undergo a decontamination scrub-down during a recent “gross” or “field” contamination drill at the base. The suits contain one-hour oxygen tanks so the users can breathe clean air. After the Level A team is cleansed, the Level B team doing the cleaning goes through the same process. Depending on the contaminating agent, the entire set of equipment, tanks and all, may have to be discarded.
— image credit: Marcie Miller

Officials have some unique challenges when it comes to emergency preparedness in North and Central Whidbey Island.

There may be an increased risk of terrorist acts because of the proximity of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, but agencies have limited resources because of the size of the population and tax constraints.

There’s also a plethora of jurisdictions to coordinate within the area. There are four fire departments, a Navy base, various departments in county government, city government, state government, Navy security, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, a hospital district, a Navy hospital, the Oak Harbor Police Department, the Coupeville Town Marshall, the State Patrol and the Sheriff’s Department.

But officials say all these different entities, many of which rely on volunteers, are able to fill all the gaps to create a comprehensive web of coverage for just about any possible emergency. At least that’s the plan.

“We’re real lucky,” Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said. “All the different jurisdictions work really well together. A lot of them are volunteers. We’re just really fortunately to have such a committed community.”

County provides strategic support

Don Mason, emergency services duty officer for Island County, also stressed the cooperative nature of the county-wide emergency system.

“It’s a complex mesh of safety net,” he said. “Everyone takes a piece and weaves it together with the other pieces.”

Betty Kemp, director of General Services, said the county’s main role in an emergency is to provide support for first responders, but the county is constructing an emergency shelter in the basement of the new county annex, which should be finished by summer.

“I feel the basement is a really safe place,” she said. The facility will also house a radio room command center, and has showers and a kitchen.

Firefighters

feel ready

Oak Harbor Fire Chief Mark Soptich said while Oak Harbor and North Whidbey may be at greater risk because of the proximity to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, he would like to think the fire department is always ready for an emergency of any kind.

“We’re acutely aware of what’s going on and trying to plan for it,” he said.

While Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge had people running to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape, Soptich said the fire department has always carried those supplies, and “not just because of 9/11.”

“We have a ready supply of emergency equipment,” he said.

There is a mutual aid agreement between all emergency providers on the island, including police, medical, fire and the Navy.

In the event of a hazardous materials emergency, such as a biological attack, the Navy would respond with a hazardous materials team. The fire department would act as support for that “hazmat” team.

Soptich said while every community and emergency services system has its weaknesses, he didn’t feel it was prudent to expose a potential Achilles’ heel.

Hospital ready

At Whidbey General Hospital, Dr. Paul Zaveruah, medical director for emergency services, said the hospital is as prepared as they can be for a terrorism response, given that the whole tactic of terrorism is to find the weak spots and exploit them.

The hospital has had a disaster response plan in place for 20 years, and all it needed was a little tweaking to adjust to new threats.

“There is a very real possibility of (terrorists) using what was only a theory,” Zaveruah said. “It is a much starker reality.”

He said responses would vary depending on the type of attack, from chemical to biological, and could include isolation, decontamination, or calling one’s own doctor for advice.

The hospital has 50 active beds, so a larger incident would require evacuation.

It does not necessarily take a catastrophic event to trigger an emergency response.

For example, “A single case of smallpox is a world-wide emergency,” he said. While President Bush has recommended that first-stage responders, such as doctors and nurses, get smallpox vaccinations, Zaveruah said Whidbey General staff has opted to wait until a threat was imminent.

“A plan is in place to vaccinate if necessary,” he said.

An attack with a chemical agent would trigger a response from the Navy’s hazmat team.

The hospital is also part of a larger emergency network. Two initial phone calls from the hospital would set off a cascade notifying the “whole world” of a situation in Island County, Zaveruah said.

“We are not working in isolation,” he said.

Police pool their resources

Sheriff Hawley said a lot of things have changed for law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001, yet his office is limited in how much it can do to prepare for disasters.

The good news is that Hawley a member of the newly-formed Regional Anti-Terrorism Committee with nearby counties. The purpose of the group, which meets monthly, is to pool resources and create a single, well-prepared response team for all the counties.

While deputies and police officers take part in annual disaster drills with fire departments, the hospital and other agencies, local law enforcement hasn’t had much in the way of specialized training for disasters.

So far, Hawley said local law enforcement has received little help from the federal government for the increased burden of terrorism alerts. He said the feds offered the office some high-tech equipment, such as “moon suits and bomb detectors,” but he turned it down.

“It was stuff we couldn’t use,” he said. “We have no money to train on it and no place to store it.”

For now, Hawley said he’s waiting for the federal bureaucracy to run its course and he’s hoping to get something useful someday, possible training opportunities.

Hawley said the job of law enforcement in a disaster is to save lives first, then secure scenes and investigate crimes. Because of the nature of law enforcement, much of the effort goes toward preventing something from happening in the first place.

In this arena, Hawley said much has changed for the better. He said he’s seen much more sharing of information within the law enforcement community. “The FBI is now willing to share information, while they used to only want to get information from us,” he said.

Ease up on the duct tape

While agencies make preparations for worst-case scenarios, officials point out that there are things people can do for themselves.

Emergency service providers recommend that every household have a “72 hour kit” to hold them over until help arrives. Soptich said this kit is a good idea for all possible catastrophes.

At Ace Hardware in downtown Oak Harbor, a clerk said duct tape and plastic sheeting were flying off the shelves early last week, but things seem to have calmed down. She did notice an increase in tarp sales, but didn’t know if that was for emergency purposes or because of the rain this week.

Checker Julie Dietz offered her opinion of emergency preparedness and “dirty” bombs: “If they’re gonna drop something on me I’d rather be at ground zero. I know it would be a terrible thing to go on living after that.”

Dietz said her family keeps some emergency supplies on hand, left over from when they stocked up after the earthquake that shook the region in February 2001, but not the extensive list suggested by emergency personnel.

“A 72 hour kit is not going to save your life,” she said.

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