by Matt Kelly
Garrison of the Charlottesville Fire Department (right) and
Maurice Jones, director of communications for the city, go
over information during last Fridays disaster drill
at Zehmer Hall.
Disaster drill prepares local personnel
for real emergencies
By Matt Kelly
wouldnt 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
you say is not what the other person hears, he said. This
happens to us every day.
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
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.
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?
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.
area is unique in having a city, county and university sharing
resources. That makes it difficult to manage and plan,
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.
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.
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.
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
people who participate are uncomfortable and embarrassed. They
know its just a game, he said, adding that only a
few are born actors who can really get into the role-playing involved.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the area has some emergency resources, Harden said these are limited
and he cautioned people to be prepared to be self-sufficient for