Public safety exercise points up strong, weak points

Posted October 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm

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A full-scale public safety exercise was held Wednesday, Sept. 26 in St. Lawrence, when local first responders came together to enact an emergency scenario.

A safety exercise is required yearly by FEMA, through the State and Local Agreement, in order to receive funding for local emergency management.

A committee came up with the exercise “plot.” It involved the report that a boy who had some disabilities had left his grandparents’ home without permission. When the grandmother returned from a shopping trip, she found not only her grandson gone, but also her husband, who had recently had serious medical problems.

Hand County Sheriff Doug DeBoer said a call was made by the “grandmother” at about 4 p.m., which initiated the search effort to find the boy.

There was a gap in time before responders arrived, and when they did, the grandmother was having heart problems, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. An active search didn’t get underway until about 15 minutes later.

The Miller Police Department responded, and it eventually was discovered that the grandfather was also missing. “A call was finally made to the fire department for assistance to search for two missing persons, rather than one,” DeBoer noted.

“We had told the boy to make sure he was seen, and he did go to the post office and ask for a phone book, but nobody picked up on that. One resident did report seeing him walking toward the creek.”

DeBoer commented, “The focus was on the responding agencies to come up with a plan, to develop strategies and tactics. However, action seemed to stall. We found it was necessary to call a ‘time out’ to get responders back on track.”

Some additional ploys were possible to add to the drama, DeBoer said, such as the need to respond to other emergencies throughout the county at the same time as the exercise was going on; loss of radio communication; and discovery of a “meth lab.” However, none of those scenarios were implemented.

The exercise wrapped up about 6:30 p.m. By that time the boy had been found at the cemetery by a non-emergency responder. The grandfather hadn’t been found, so he was asked to make a call to 911 saying he was lost, and it still took some time for responders to get to him.

After the exercise was over, evaluators from agencies outside of Hand County shared the exercise’s high points and offered suggestions to responders who were part of the exercise.

DeBoer said one area to be worked on would be getting the various agencies to communicate better and to establish a command structure early on. The responders didn’t gather at the St. Lawrence Community Center until about 5 p.m., and positive leadership was needed.

He noted several other “glitches,” and added his grading of the event. “As far as carrying through on the objective of trying to find the missing persons, I would give it a ‘C.’ But considering what the participants could take away from the exercise and process, regarding how things could have gone better, I would give it an ‘A’.”

And, said DeBoer, the reason for the exercise is for it to be a learning situation, to apply what was learned and to make necessary changes.

“Following the exercise, if the same situation happened today, based on what they learned, I believe everything would take place much more quickly, and move more smoothly.”

And—bottom line—that’s the purpose of the exercise: to learn, to improve and to implement.

Martina Kittelson-Caviness | The Miller Press

Miller Police Officer Chris Henrickson takes Ila Norton’s statement during a mock disaster held last Wednesday, Sept. 26 in St. Lawrence. Norton portrayed the grandmother of the missing person.