Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                Shelli Edwards, with San Juan County Public Works, and Jim McCorison, with Orcas Fire, work on the logistics team at the March 8 San Juan County training.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Shelli Edwards, with San Juan County Public Works, and Jim McCorison, with Orcas Fire, work on the logistics team at the March 8 San Juan County training.

San Juan County’s best prepare for the worst in emergency training

An explosion has just destroyed the courthouse in Friday Harbor and it’s your job to keep San Juan County running.

At least, that’s what the municipality’s employees were told at a March 8 emergency training.

“It’s not really about the courthouse burning down,” said Brendan Cowan, director of San Juan County Department of Emergency Management, who spearheaded the event. “It’s about figuring out what to do if we lose access to one of our buildings and how long it takes to organize a response.”

In a real emergency, members of the Red Cross, Town of Friday Harbor and other organizations would be deployed as well, said Cowan, but this drill focused on San Juan County employees.

Thirty representatives from the county, and a few outside agencies, joined forces to maintain government operations after its central location for services was destroyed. Attendees outlined how to complete tasks like clearing debris from the explosion’s site, organizing a press conference and covering the finances – all while within the confines of the San Juan fire station meeting room. Participants scribbled action steps on notepads and charted road closure maps on laptops, in the hopes of thinking just as fast when it’s time for boots to actually hit the ground.

“The training is to help us practice how we work together,” said Cowan.“It’s designed to stretch people, to make them struggle and have challenges.”

Responders – deployed in emergencies, from 9/11 to single-car accidents – follow a similar approach that outlines a chain of command. In the March 8 training, San Juan County Director of Health and Community Services Mark Tompkins and County Manager Mike Thomas took the helm. County Councilman Rick Hughes represented the policy group, which would also include other county and town councilman in real-life disasters. Cowan oversaw the big picture to ensure smooth operations.

The rest were divided among five teams, like County Auditor Milene Henrey in finance and County Assessor John Kulseth in operations. Each group included positions with outlined jobs and a hierarchy of members.

Norm Varsovia spends his work days in the county information technology department, so during this disaster scenario, he outlined how to establish workstations for county employees in the fairgrounds building.

“I have to set up the desks, chairs, computers, power cables and the network, so the county can work there temporarily,” he said. He even created a mockup design on the computer.

In real life, Varsovia and other IT staff members are working to place a backup of the county’s computer data on the mainland, in case a crisis actually occurs. Data will be copied, daily, in Arlington, Washington, creating a 30-mile space between a potential local disaster and the county’s information. Staff can retrieve the backup over the county’s high-speed internet connection or travel to Arlington and physically return the data to San Juan.

Brad Creesy, chief of the San Juan Island Fire and Rescue, is all too familiar with the steps outlined in the training.

“We use them every single day in emergency services,” said Creesy.

Responding to a vehicle collision, for instance, said Cressey, uses the same methodology of the March 8 scenario, only on a smaller scale, with fewer people.

He and his crew understand large-scale emergencies too. Last summer, two of Creesy’s firefighters were deployed to Southern Oregon to help extinguish wildfires. Creesy, himself, last helped a large emergency in 2014, when a landslide occurred outside of Oso, Washington.

“It’s a huge benefit working in a big system and bringing it back home,” he said.

Assisting during real-life emergencies has a three-fold effect, said Creesy; it helps the community in need, provides training for islanders and establishes a connection for additional support in case of a local tragedy.

As reservists for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Cowan said that he and fellow DEM employee Dave Halloran are on-call to work on disasters around the U.S., whenever the agency needs assistance. Cowan was deployed to Santa Barbara, California just after last January’s debris flows, which are commonly called mudslides. Cowan also helped in Houston after Hurricane Harvey caused mass floodings in the city, last August.

Experiences from those real-world disasters help Cowan prepare responders at home.“Beyond just procedures and protocol, on Wednesday we were practicing working as a cohesive team,” said Cowan.

For more information, visit sanjuandem.net.

Originally, this article misspelled the name of Brad Creesy, chief of the San Juan Island Fire and Rescue.

 

Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                Participants of the March 8 training listen to a mock press conference at the event.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Participants of the March 8 training listen to a mock press conference at the event.

Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                The planning division of the training worked on creating maps and updating an action plan for responders.

Staff photo/Hayley Day The planning division of the training worked on creating maps and updating an action plan for responders.