Disaster drill prepares responders

Agencies practice emergency response scenario

Keywords: Emergency planning,
DEPUTY EMERGENCY MANAGER Paul Hollar, second from right, supervises the center table, a stand-in ground zero, at a pipeline explosion simulation at Lewis-Arriola Elementary School. The exercise involved about 40 people from a dozen agencies - some on duty, some on call - around Montezuma County. Enlargephoto

Luke Groskopf/Cortez Journal

DEPUTY EMERGENCY MANAGER Paul Hollar, second from right, supervises the center table, a stand-in ground zero, at a pipeline explosion simulation at Lewis-Arriola Elementary School. The exercise involved about 40 people from a dozen agencies - some on duty, some on call - around Montezuma County.

None of it was real - there was no pipeline explosion, no gaping crater in the ground, no casualties. But they did their best to act like it was.

Law enforcement, fire districts, oil and gas companies and assorted emergency personnel staged a hypothetical disaster scenario on Tuesday at Lewis-Arriola Elementary School. Called a "tabletop exercise," the goal was to practice smoothing out channels of communication - between a dozen different agencies - during a severe, unforeseen catastrophe. They tried to replicate the fast-pace, high-pressure atmosphere of a real disaster as much they could, within the confines of a school gymnasium.

It was all about preparedness and efficiency.

"So we're not exchanging business cards (for the first time) when something like this does happen," Paul Hollar, the county's deputy emergency manager, told those assembled.

In the gym, organizers set up five tables. In the center were two dispatchers and a large table representing the disaster site. Around the periphery, personnel from each agency sat awaiting directions.

The initial accident, as told to dispatch in a 911 call, involved a natural gas pipeline explosion near the intersection of Highways 491 and 184, close to the elementary school. The blast, according to "witnesses," opened a crater 30 feet deep, 150 feet long by 40 feet wide. There are reports of 10 casualties and/or fatalities, Hollar said, and more possible injuries from flying shards of glass. Reverberations were felt a quarter mile away.

After dispatch received word of the explosion, a sergeant with the Montezuma County Sheriff's Office was first on the "scene." After surveying the extent of damage, he then radioed in for reinforcements.

Within minutes the center table was swarming with people, communicating back and forth to each other - and dispatch - about roadblocks; whether to evacuate the students or keep them inside; monitoring a second, potentially dangerous pipeline nearby; treating the injured; locating the missing; and sending out status updates to the concerned public.

The exercise lasted about 90 minutes. Periodically, Hollar called for time-outs so participants could evaluate what was going smoothly and where communication breakdowns were exposed.

One area for improvement, Sheriff Dennis Spruell said, was notifying senior agency officials promptly; Spruell wasn't brought into the loop until 30 minutes after the explosion. To rectify that oversight in the future, he said dispatch would send out a mass text message all at once to all command personnel.

Chief George Deavers, of the Lewis-Arriola Fire Protection District, said different radio frequencies between agencies posed a challenge at first. In-vehicle communication is uniform and straightforward, but when on foot, the sheriff's deputies use 800 megahertz radios, while the firefighters use VHF radios.

Charles Balke, assistant chief at the Cortez Fire Protection District, said acting out a simulation is inherently different from reality.

"Certain (procedures) are second nature with a live event," he said. "Trying to respond the same ways in a non-chaotic environment, where you aren't seeing flames and screaming people ... they can be hard to remember because you use those real-life visual indicators as clues."

Nonetheless, Balke thought the exercise was worthwhile.

"It's an excellent opportunity to assess our resources in the event of a real pipeline rupture," he said.

"It's meant to be thought-provoking, to get people thinking about worst-case scenarios," Hollar explained, adding that tabletops occur on a regular basis. The next one, also about a pipeline burst, will be staged in Mancos.

More infrequently, the agencies will get together and do a "functional drill" out in the field. Last year, they re-enacted a plane crash using a dilapidated, out-of-use school bus with volunteer "victims" to be rescued.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com