Mock disaster leaves town, state better prepared

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Seth Lasker of Colchester Rescue talks with Town Manager Dawn Francis on July 29 during a mock disaster training at Colchester Police headquarters. (File photo by Jason Starr)

Seth Lasker of Colchester Rescue talks with Town Manager Dawn Francis on July 29 during a mock disaster training at Colchester Police headquarters. (File photo by Jason Starr)

By Jason Starr

A few days after Colchester’s top administrators and emergency services personnel practiced their response to a major disaster — an earthquake and strong aftershock that collapsed a local school and major roadway, leaving thousands of residents without clean water — they evaluated their performance.

The Vermont Department of Emergency Management hired a contractor to help in the evaluation, and he came away generally impressed.

“They were prepared and worked as a team,” state evaluator Richard Weinhagen told town officials during an August debriefing. “When much of Malletts Bay was cut off from the rest of town due to a simulated bridge outage and road failure, they utilized the bike path to bring supplies … Solutions were being made as they went.”

The July 29 drill was part of a statewide training that involved the Vermont National Guard and several municipalities. State officials set up an emergency operations center in Waterbury as officials at Norwich University rolled out the surprise scenario to local responders.

In Colchester, the heads of the fire departments, rescue squads and town management gathered in police headquarters to coordinate their response as the mock disaster unfolded.

“People came up with creative solutions and relied on their personal and professional knowledge and relationships to address the issues as they occurred,” assistant town manager Aaron Frank said.

Communication between local departments and with state and military resources went smoothly, Frank said. The only thing town officials would do differently is tweak the setup of the emergency operations center.

Christopher Herrick, Vermont Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division director, said the operations setup in Waterbury would also be tweaked in a real emergency, better displaying information for all emergency responders to see.

The division would also change how citizen reports are handled, he said. They would be forwarded immediately to the appropriate state agency instead of having a dispatcher taking messages for call backs, as they did during the exercise.

Herrick also said the exercise underscored the need for emergency departments to have multiple people trained to handle disasters, in case someone is out of the office when an emergency occurs.

“We know we need to improve on ‘depth on the bench’ so there is no quality drop off if someone is out,” Herrick said. “We need to ensure the level of performance remains high.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is preparing a formal report on state and local response during the Vigilant Guard drill. The report is due in October, according to Herrick.

“It certainly challenged us,” he said. “We went through the process of how we would request additional resources once Vermont got overwhelmed, and that was very successful … All the processes got tested, and I feel we are better prepared.”