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Fake terror attack shows need

A simulated terrorist attack provided a chance for the county’s Emergency Operations Center to activate.

The Tuesday exercise revealed some places to improve and facilitate a better response to real disasters.

Representatives from county agencies, law enforcement and emergency services came to the Commissioners’ Hearing Room located in the basement of the Courthouse Annex Building for the exercise.

Participants practiced coordinating responses to a scenario where a tanker truck explodes on Highway 525 as the result of a terrorist attack.

“It’s pointing out the problems,” said Paul Zaveruha, EMS director at Whidbey General Hospital. He said it was difficult for him to keep track of people in the field because his normal communications equipment wasn’t available in the center.

He said the need to improve communications is a concern that always comes up when debriefing after an exercise.

Zaveruha’s comments were echoed by Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley.

“The thing we learn is where all the glitches are,” Hawley said during the exercise. He added that it’s good to put all key people in a room where they can work together.

He agreed communications remain an issue in coordinating a major incident. He pointed out that local dispatch and State Patrol dispatch work on two separate systems so he often doesn’t know about incidents that can happen on the ferries, for example.

He said the various agencies also have a good strong history of working together, which helps in the event of a major emergency.

Mike Simmons, Island County emergency planner, said he knew there would be some communications issues surrounding the exercise. He said cell phone reception is poor in the Annex basement, which is surrounded by cement and steel. The exercise was the first EOC training opportunity since the building was renovated several years ago.

“We knew it was going to be very rough,” Simmons said.

He said there needs to be better ways found for communication among the different agencies.

“It’s trying to find the right combination and right solution to fit our needs,” Simmons said.

The Operations Center, which is where the Board of Island County Commissioners hold their regular meetings, was filled with representatives from agencies ranging from the Washington State Patrol to the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary. They worked on folding tables and old telephones.

The scenario began at approximately 2 p.m. That’s when a call came in saying a tanker truck exploded on Highway 525 between Race Road and Houston Road. That is an area where there is no alternative route to divert traffic. A bomb, placed by a terrorist group, caused the explosion.

“One of the real hazards in Island County is that we have fuel that arrives in trucks,” Simmons said.

He said having the accident at that location forced participants to deal with how to transport victims, who were located south of the accident, to the hospital located north of the accident.

In all, it took several hours for the participants to complete the scenario.

Simmons said he is talking with agencies involved in the exercise to learn what could have been done better. He hopes to have a report prepared in about a month.

The exercise was funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. Simmons said the grant money paid for two other exercises held earlier this year.

Island County’s Emergency Operations Center activates whenever an incident is too big for first responders to handle and help is needed from outside agencies.

Simmons said Island County is fortunate because it doesn’t have such risks as pipelines, rivers and fuel refineries that could cause a major incident.

Community Events, April 2014

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