March 1-7, 2002
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Maurice Jones/Jeffrey Garrison
Photo by Matt Kelly
Jeffrey Garrison of the Charlottesville Fire Department (right) and Maurice Jones, director of communications for the city, go over information during last Friday’s disaster drill at Zehmer Hall.

Disaster drill prepares local personnel for real emergencies

By Matt Kelly

You wouldn’t know it by looking, but there was 10 inches of snow outside, the South Fork Rivanna dam was about to burst, the electricity was out, there was a leaking propane tanker in the city and there were two separate evacuations going on. Oh, yes, there was also a terrorist attack.

These were the cascading scenarios of disaster that faced representatives of the University, Albemarle County and Charlottesville in a tabletop disaster preparedness exercise held at Zehmer Hall on Friday.

There was a constant buzz of activity as telephones beeped and emergency personnel murmured to each other, either on the telephone or in constantly shifting groups in the three adjacent situation rooms. In each room, a projection of a computer screen constantly scrolled updates of the unfolding situations and agencies’ responses.

In the other end of the building, the exercise controllers adjusted the scenarios as the game went along. The water tanker involved in an accident turned into a propane tanker, which then was on fire, then just leaking — but that information only came about after a neighborhood evacuation was already under way.

Kaye Harden, emergency resources coordinator for the county, city and University, said the exercise can point out weaknesses in the response system, such as the poor communication displayed in the above session.

“What you say is not what the other person hears,” he said. “This happens to us every day.”

The participants got plenty of practice in the fog of emergencies, with the confusion about evacuations and fires and floods. There were jurisdictional disputes over opening shelters and who was in charge of what aspects, and what role volunteer groups were to play.

One woman who worked with volunteer groups said the exercise was important because it gave her contact with other people she would have to work with in an actual disaster.

Questions came up throughout. How can an agency reduce its liability when using spontaneous volunteers for drivers? What is the chain of command on a procedure?

“This brings members from the city, the county and the University to work together and to share resources,” Harden said. “When we do have a real situation they will have had this experience.”

This area is unique in having a city, county and university sharing resources. “That makes it difficult to manage and plan,” Harden said.

Evaluators moved from room to room, examining how people reacted to the shifting scenarios. Harden said the control group members paid attention to the responses to new developments, and if they felt the reaction was inadequate, they would hike up the tension level on the event.

“The control group determines what idea is valid,” Harden said, based on experience. Harden has been participating in emergency drills for 18 years, 11 of that at Albemarle County and the rest for the U.S. Air Force.

Scenario planners mine real life for ideas, such as Hurricane Andrew, hazardous material spills and the recent terrorist attacks. Harden finds emergency response people are more proactive in real disasters, while in drills they tend to wait for the problems to surface.

“They tend to think ahead in real life,” he said. “In the exercises, they tend to be reactive, and then they still have a problem. The exercise tends to force the issue if you do something without thought.”

Most people who participate are uncomfortable and embarrassed. “They know it’s just a game,” he said, adding that only a few are born actors who can really get into the role-playing involved.

During the exercise, some people are not very busy, but Harden said they know that in real life, the true tests for their agencies will come two and three days after the immediate disaster, as services have to be restored or longer-term shelter found for the displaced.

There was a short debriefing following the drill Friday, with more extensive reviews to come. The evaluators score the process, not the people, so individuals are not held responsible for specific decisions. The standard is how close the response stayed to the emergency plan and how well the plan worked in the situation.

“We change [the plan] every year because we learn something new every year,” Harden said. “We have come a long way, and we are confident, but there are always mistakes made because there are so many things going on.”

Harden said the Federal Emergency Management Agency mandates that each locality participate in two drills a year. He said the winter drill is usually a tabletop exercise, while the one planned for September will be a field exercise at the county airport. If the county can show that it handled a real emergency, that will count as one of the drills.

While the area has some emergency resources, Harden said these are limited and he cautioned people to be prepared to be self-sufficient for three days.


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