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.
“The training is to help us practice how we work together,” said Cowan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.