Last week, right here in Nevada, officials were huddled together on a Wednesday trying to sort through the many things needing to be done, due to a tragedy that struck Story County.
The tragedy — a massive tornado had ripped through the heart of Huxley — was only a scenario, a mock drill set up to help county officials and others who would respond to such an event, practice how that response would play out.
Keith Morgan, Story County Emergency Management coordinator, said the exercise was the culmination of a five-year process to transform the Story County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) from a room with tables and chairs to a fully functioning command center that could be rapidly activated.
“Over the five years, we had strong support from the Story County Administration to share resources, which permanently equip the Operations Center (EOC) with the phones and computers that would be ready to go on a moment’s notice,” Morgan said. “More importantly, they have allowed us to conduct training three to four times a year with Story County staff to educate them on the roles they would fulfill in the EOC. The training we provided increased in complexity and difficulty and the exercise finally brought everyone together to experience the noise, confusion and stress that might be experienced if we had to activate for real.” He added that they also had people from the Gilbert and Colo Volunteer Fire Departments and ISU Vet Medicine involved, because they fill EOC staff positions.
All total, there were approximately 40 participants involved in the exercise, including KCCI, Huxley Police Department and the Huxley mayor, who participated as actors and emergency managers from Boone, Marshall, Polk and Jasper counties, filling the roles of exercise evaluators or simulation personnel. Even the Nevada Journal editor was present for the press conference.
Morgan said the first reason to do a practice drill boils down to minimizing risk. “Every year there are events that rapidly strike communities they were not expecting — the Joplin tornado, West Texas chemical explosion, Boston Marathon bombings… While it is easy to say that will never happen here, it is a bet that we can’t afford to make when we have the capability to reduce our risk through some relatively small investments in equipment and, probably more importantly, a larger investment in training of people,” Morgan said. Morgan said Story County and its citizens are fortunate that the Emergency Management office gets the support it needs to minimize the county’s risk through disaster preparedness.
Second, Morgan said, “most of my career has been in crisis response in one form or another and I have observed the incredible value of having individuals exposed to stress during exercises and having to rapidly change to a crisis decision-making mode and working with incomplete or conflicting information. Our exercise provided them this opportunity prior to it impacting an actual disaster response.”
The mock tornado event allowed for the exercise’s primary objectives to be met. Those were to test the staff notification system, to test procedures to activate each of the staff positions within the EOC, for EOC staff to analyze information to identify problems and offer solutions, to track task and resources, and to pass information on from one shift to another.
“Part of the exercise process is to gather feedback from all of the participants, so we can identify areas where we did well and areas for improvement,” Morgan said. “We are still in that process, but there are many different areas for improvement have already been identified.”
Story County Supervisor Marty Chitty, of Nevada, who took part in the exercise along with the other two supervisors, said the event “was fascinating to see unfold, as it hasn’t been done like this before.”
Chitty said while the three supervisors had consulting and messaging roles (holding press conferences with the media), they mostly observed what was going on and how difficult the task was at hand.
“Having a tornado bisect Huxley, causing multiple deaths and injuries, is profound enough. Then add a hazmat spill on I-35, closing southbound traffic east of town, plus a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) hit involving 1,000 or so pigs west of town, and the complexity is substantial,” Chitty said. “It was a deep dive to stress-test how and where we needed to find our blind spots and if our previous planning had taken all variables into account.”
Chitty said it was sobering to watch the seriousness of everyone working in the command center. “There was a real buy-in to get answers and responses,” he said. And just like in real life, technology didn’t always cooperate. “Adaptation was the norm that day,” Chitty said.
Chitty said while he hopes Story County never has to go through a tragedy like this, he feels the preparation and plan of the county is important.
Following the exercise, Morgan said most the staff indicated that more frequent training would be helpful. “Our processes to collect, document and track all the tasks still takes too much time, and developing processes for working with our public information personnel need to be improved,” he said of several areas that have been identified.
“We’ll take everyone’s inputs (and) modify procedures — training everyone on these changes; conduct drills; and within a few years we hope to be able to run another full-scale EOC exercise,” Morgan said.
On a scale of 1-10, he gives last week’s exercise a 9-10 on providing the learning environment needed. As for the performance during the event, he’d give it a 6-7 rating, compared to where he wants Story County EOC to realistically be with the resources it has if an emergency were to happen.