VANDALIA — It’s a nightmare scenario, but one first responders around the globe are focusing on.
It’s a crowded Friday night at the Vandalia Farmer’s Market and, out of nowhere, a car comes plowing down the street at a high rate of speed. People flee, but not fast enough and dozens are injured. Complicating matters, the vehicle, which flipped on its top, has struck a gas main relief system causing a significant natural gas leak and explosion danger.
That was the scene Friday morning on Kenbrook Drive and Perry Street as the Vandalia Division of Fire held an emergency operation drill.
Behind the scenes, at the Justice Center and the Municipal Building, dozens of city staff sprang into action while activating the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the basement of the city building. It was the city’s first full-scale exercise since 2008.
“Our emergency crews train year round for emergency situations,” said Vandalia Fire Chief Chad Follick. “But in a large scale emergency, we will rely on key members of our administrative staff to play a role in managing a crisis.”
Follick said the drill had three top objectives that included public information and warning, control and command, and situational awareness.
“We talked a lot about how we needed to continually be giving information to the public through social media, media outlets, our website, and things like that,” he said. “Some of the things we earned from the tornado and wind storm a few years ago were used here and show we are on the right track. There’s always room for improvement.”
City Manager Jon Crusey, who was the overall coordinator of the EOC, agreed.
“We found a lot of things we do well and a lot of things we need to work on,” said Crusey.
One of those things was the role of the Public Information Officer (PIO). Communications Manager Rich Hopkins, who would likely serve as the PIO in a real emergency, said instead of being on the scene of the emergency, as he was on Friday, he would likely remain at the EOC.
“We had some mixed messaging from what was being said on scene and what was being said at the EOC,” Hopkins said. “In the future, I would likely stay at the EOC and direct all media here. This really highlighted how fluid an emergency like this would be and how many different sources of information there can be.”
Thankfully, Friday’s exercise was just that – not the real thing, a scenario none of the participants hopes to see.
The city’s Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) is set up in a three year training cycle that includes a review of of the EOP and its policies in year one. The second year includes a tabletop exercise in a meeting with participants. The third year will include a full-scale, hazard specific scenario which is staged to exercise specific parts of the EOP.
“This is training we hope we never need to use,” Follick said. “But we also understand that in a crisis this training could ultimately serve to help save lives.”
“This (drill) is kind of like buying insurance – its our plan but we hope it never happens,” said Crusey.
Reach Darrell Wacker at (937) 684-8983 or on Twitter @VandaliaDrummer.