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Disaster drill illuminates emergency preparations’ strength and weaknesses

Business Short Takes

October 23, 2010
By WAYNE SHEETS Contributing Business Writer

Last week, an emergency mitigation team assembled at the Davis Memorial Hospital to run a "table top exercise" involving a simulated explosion of the heating/power system at the Huttonsville Correctional Center.

The group, comprised of members from the correctional center, Huttonsville-Mill Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Davis Health System, Randolph County Office of Emergency Management and several volunteers spent the day coping with the expected and unexpected.

The purpose of the drill was to see how effective are the plans are that have been put into place to deal with not only this specific type of emergency but any other manmade or natural disaster that might happen at the correctional facility and the countless issues faced by those coping with the problems. While this was a specific scenario, the actions for its mitigation are not unlike those faced in most any type of emergency.

The simulated explosion, around 8 a.m. Oct. 16, rendered the HCC without power, heat, sanitation facilities and food service. All 1,136 inmates and staff of more than 320 were affected.

Some of the more serious problems faced by those running the exercise included damage assessment, establishment of a triage center, the safety of fireman and rescue personnel needing to enter the site, inmate and staff injuries and fatalities, inmate security and public safety, transport of the injured to medical facilities in and out of state, preparation at the local hospital to receive the injured, acquisition of supplies and equipment through the Office of Emergency Management, dealing with reporting accurate information to the news media and rumor control.

We rarely think about such events in our daily lives. We go through life with little consideration or thought for those who spend countless hours formulating plans for dealing with disasters and the multitude of details involved with them. We have, and rightly so, virtually no knowledge of all the energies expended putting into place guidelines to assist in emergency situations at the HCC, the hospital, the volunteer fire departments, the Office of Emergency Management and of the countless hours spent by volunteer groups such as the American Red Cross, Randolph County Ministerial Association, Local Emergency Planning Committee and other groups who are concerned with the safety and security of our populace during emergencies.

My point is that we should, every one of us, be mindful of the efforts of those who care enough to donate their time and resources to such work.

It was interesting to watch the drama unfold. There sat a group of men and women, people from the correctional facility, the H-MCVFD and other agencies trying to deal with a situation, although simulated, as though it were an actual event. The countless problems that arose were further confused and complicated by injections that were built into the exercise by planners over the preceding several months.

As situations developed, the mitigation team had to contact other agencies and supply them with information and make requests for resources, which, as always, encompassed delays and logistic issues further complicating an already complex set of circumstances.

I was amazed by the "cool" of those participating in the exercise. Whether simulated or actual, conflicts invariably arise between the participants who consider their needs to have priority over all others.

This exercise was no different but the astonishing observation here was that everyone held their emotions in check. No one used his or her "authority" to gain advantage over anyone else.

"Well," you might say, "this was just an exercise and no one was in danger - no one's safety was at stake, no one was injured or killed." Yes, you can say that, but if you had walked into the room not knowing that this was an exercise and watched the team at work, you would have believed it was the real thing.

The exercise, as expected, illuminated some shortcomings in the existing plans and pointed out some areas where planning must be revised. It also revealed that a great deal of the planning efforts were "on track," too. Immediately after the exercise ended, everyone involved sat through a "hot wash" or review of the exercise - what went well, what did not go so well and what action needs to be taken in the immediate future to improve the plans for such incidents.

We all live and pray every day that such disasters will not happen, but we know that they will.

We only have to look back to Nov. 4, 1985 and January 1996 and the ravages of Mother Nature become vivid in our minds. We, every one of us, owe those who do everything possible to reduce the damages, losses and suffering from these kinds of events a great deal more than they receive. They are not, on the other hand, the kind who expect anything - recognition or reward. They do it because it's a part of their makeup.

The other day I received an e-mail noting a relatively new law now in the code requiring drivers to slow down to a maximum speed if on a two-lane highway or slow down and move to the far traffic lane if on a highway that has two or more lanes running in the same direction or both when passing a law enforcement vehicle with flashing lights.

I hesitated to write anything about it until I checked it out with the West Virginia State Police so I dropped the Secretary of MAPS, Joseph Thornton, a note asking him to verify the authenticity of the supposed law. Folks it is a law and if you don't obey it, you could be fined up to $1,000 or confined in the county or regional jail for a period of not more than six months, or both.

I don't have room to quote the entire law here even though it is short and to the point. In part it states: "17C-14-9a - Approaching authorized emergency vehicles; penalties.

"(a) The driver of any vehicle approaching a stationary authorized emergency vehicle, when the authorized emergency vehicle is giving a signal by displaying alternately flashing red, red and white, blue, or red and blue lights or amber or yellow warning lights, shall:

"(1) Proceed with due caution, yield the right-of-way by making a lane change not adjacent to that of the authorized emergency vehicle, if possible with regard to safety and traffic conditions, if on a highway having at least four lanes with not less than two lanes proceeding in the same direction as the approaching vehicle and reduce speed to a safe level for road conditions; or

"(2) Proceed with due caution, reduce the speed of the vehicle, maintaining a safe speed not to exceed 15 miles per hour on any non-divided highway or street and 25 miles per hour on any divided highway depending on road conditions, if changing lanes would be impossible or unsafe."

The portion that's not contained here are the penalties for violating this code. Beware, folks, they are issuing citations for this violation.

Give our safety officers a break - slow down and, if possible, move to the far lane. Every week or so we hear of an incident involving our law enforcement officers that could have been prevented by giving them the space they need to do their job safely.



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