Islanders prep for disaster
October 27, 2009 · Updated 12:44 PM
Two feet of snow covered the Island, when suddenly every Vashon resident and business lost power. Phones went down; ferries stopped running, and the Island found itself gripped in a disaster unlike any it had faced before.
That was the hypothetical disaster scenario that played out on Saturday, when 200 Islanders converged on Burton and Vashon town for a drill to put the Island’s emergency procedures into action.
They maneuvered downed trees and rescued carbon-monoxide poisoned dummies from a cabin at Camp Burton. They sent ham radio messages from fire station to fire station. They transmitted drill messages and news bulletins on Voice of Vashon, the local radio station, while informing listeners the dispatch was a drill, lest those who tuned in be caught up in a “War of the Worlds”-like hysteria.
The hundreds who put the Island’s emergency skills to the test found that Vashon is well prepared for a blizzard — communication was nearly seamless, coordination among entities was similarly smooth, and each group performed its designated functions well, officials said.
“Vashon, in my opinion, is on the leading edge of preparedness,” said Fire Chief Hank Lipe. “It’s amazing how Islanders have trained, the level of expertise they have. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
Saturday marked the Island’s fourth major emergency drill, and the first time Islanders have tested out how Vashon would fare in a major blizzard. Other exercises explored the Island’s earthquake readiness.
“It’s a lot easier to work out the bugs during training,” Lipe said.
The snowstorm drill was based on realistic weather reports — a storm like the one modeled on Saturday could truly sweep the Island.
“Twelve blizzards of this magnitude have hit the Puget Sound in the last 86 years,” said Rick Wallace, vice president for operations of VashonBePrepared, an organization created to ready the Island for disaster or emergency.
Wallace said he created the hypothetical severe blizzard conditions with help from actual National Weather Service bulletins.
Communication among various Island entities — Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, Voice of Vashon and the Island’s Medical Reserve Corps, to name a few — went well, reported those who took part in the drill.
And aside from a few minor issues, like some poorly working walkie-talkies, the training exercise was a success, Wallace said.
“We learned a lot,” he said. “We discovered things we can improve in terms of our process, ... and we also learned a lot about the things that are working well.”
Lipe said he thought radio and paper-based communication was a strength of Saturday’s drill, but also an area where there’s room for improvement.
“The flow of information went really well, and that sometimes is taken for granted, but really it’s a compliment to the way that (Island entities) have set up communications,” he said, adding, “We can always improve on communications.”
Another point he’d like to see worked on is the technology used in an emergency, he said.
It’s sometimes difficult to stay abreast of the rapid advances in technology, but he’d like to do so, he said, possibly by applying for grants to fund purchases of the latest in communication and emergency response technology.
The bustling hub of communication activity on Saturday was the Emergency Operations Center, located in Fire Station 55 on Bank Road.
Different desks, charged with particular tasks like creating situation reports to send to King County or coordinating responses from the utility companies, were abuzz with action. Papers flew back and forth. People huddled over laptops, examining maps and bulletins. And message runners brought in the freshest news from other parts of the Island. Maps of different sections of the Island were plastered on the walls, some of them marked up with pen, signifying hypothetical incidents at those locations.
The people in the Emergency Operations Center brought all of Vashon’s efforts together, and at the end of the morning-long drill, held a debriefing to discuss the event’s successes and shortcomings.
The exercise was, more than anything, a chance to test out the emergency skills many Islanders have learned but rarely if ever used. Those involved said it was a fun and worthwhile way to spend a morning, as well as a valuable training exercise.
“Wow, what a five hours it’s been,” Lipe said to the group assembled at Station 55 after the drill. An exercise like Saturday’s “pays huge dividends,” he added. And it cost very little to put together — the biggest expenditure was the time, hundreds of hours of it, that Islanders donated to the effort.
Wallace, the Emergency Operations Center coordinator, said he was grateful for every person who took part in the drill.
“Just the fact that they came out and all worked together so smoothly and showed so much care for each other and the Island — I’m very proud of that,” he said.