CH sees positive steps, areas to improve after ShakeOut drill

CH sees positive steps, areas to improve after ShakeOut drill
Posted on 05/04/2012

Residents who follow CHCity on Facebook and Twitter probably saw some strange posts on April 17, such as “Due to heavy damage, CH has declared a state of emergency, please stand by.”

Cottonwood Heights was one of many cities and government agencies that participated in the Great Utah ShakeOut. The city’s drill focused on two major parts of emergency preparedness: communication and volunteer organization.

“We wanted to test our volunteers and our alternate forms of communication,” said City Manager Liane Stillman. “In terms of being able to test that, it was a good drill. Everybody involved got a better sense of how they fit into the picture of first response.”

The mock earthquake struck at 10:15 a.m., and the city staff participated in a brief evacuation of the building. After the building inspector declared the structure was safe, the command staff turned on their HAM radios to listen for further instructions.

Elected officials were called to the city offices to form the policy and public information group. They tracked the work of first responders such as police and public works crews. The mayor ended up declaring a state of emergency just before 11 a.m. and then elevated the status of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to Level Three.

Not only had the city created mock emergency scenarios, but city leaders also received calls from the Salt Lake County EOC with “injects,” or surprise scenarios that also had to be prioritized and assessed.

Some of these surprise scenarios included house fires, water main breaks, impassable roads, building collapses and even a bank robbery and looting. Each situation had to be evaluated and confirmed by emergency responders before being cleared. This required effective communication between the county EOC, the city EOC, police, public works crews and staff. This communication drill lasted until 2 p.m.

Later in the evening, CERT volunteers ran a drill of their own using the city’s emergency HAM radio network and multi-colored triage ribbons the city has distributed to residents. Local block captains and volunteers split up among the city’s CERT precincts and called in the statuses of the buildings in their neighborhoods. GIS Specialist Kevin Sato then mapped the statuses in order to get a clear picture of how the city was fairing during the mock disaster.

“The city volunteer and CERT teams are the backbone of our communication system,” said Stillman. “They did a fabulous job.”

The city also coordinated with the Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) to launch a limited Reverse-911 call to some residents of the city.

“This was a big test and a big breakthrough,” said Stillman. “I think what’s really significant is that this gives us confidence that the things we’ve been putting together actually tested out.”

However, Stillman said the drill was also an opportunity to find “holes” in the emergency plan. For example, the building rented by the city to house the city offices interferes with some of the communication systems that would be needed in an emergency.

“We have learned the capabilities we want so that we can build that into the infrastructure when we decide to find a new location for city hall,” she said.

In preparation for the ShakeOut, elected officials and department heads started certification in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and fine-tuned the equipment that was needed for the drill.

In the coming weeks, city staff will participate in more training and discuss lessons learned. They will also install necessary technology in the mobile incident management van that was acquired by the city through a grant from FEMA.