Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan was solemn as he addressed two dozen police, fire and city administrators gathered in the city’s Public Safety complex Wednesday morning.
“Yesterday, as you know, there was a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Oregon,” he said. “It caused major damage in the Puget Sound area; it caused damage here in Edmonds.”
While such an earthquake didn’t happen, it’s a scenario that’s all too possible in communities along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which can produce earthquakes as large as magnitude 9. And city officials say that’s why Edmonds participated in this week’s Cascadia Rising 2016, a simulated field response to such a disaster involving local cities, counties, state agencies, federal officials, the military, tribal nations and the private sector.
Scientific evidence indicates that a magnitude 8.0-9.0 earthquake occurs along the 800-mile long fault on average once every 200 to 500 years. The last major earthquake and tsunami along the Cascadia fault occurred over 300 years ago in 1700.
Compaan and Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling led Wednesday morning’s three-plus-hour Cascadia Rising exercise, which involved both first responders and city administrators serving in various roles, from operations to logistics to planning to finance. Officials from Snohomish County Fire District 1, which contracts with the city to provide fire and EMS services, were also on hand to offer guidance and support, as were two local volunteer ham radio operators.
Compaan began by providing an overview of the exercise, which included receiving and responding to messages from the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management (DEM). The mission, Compaan said, was to activate the city’s Emergency Operation Center (EOC), provide reports to Snohomish County, and test the city’s communications “to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Depending on the extent of damage, the city may be without landline, cell phone and email communications, the police chief noted. So other communication tools were added to the mix during Wednesday morning’s exercise, including VHF and ham (also referred to as amateur) radios. Compaan noted that ham radio communication was a key piece of the emergency response in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Local ham radio operator Dave Ball of Edmonds explained to the group that he and other operators conduct their own radio drills regularly with ham radio equipment set up in the closet of the police training room. “We can send voice messages within 50-60 miles,” Ball said. “We typically will talk directly to the (county) Department of Emergency Management up by Boeing Field.
“The idea is if the power’s out and nothing else is working, these stations will still stay up. We’ve all got battery backups; some have solar panels on them. We still can communicate with DEM,” he said.
The county has a broad assortment of ham radios that can communicate directly directly with state emergency management officials, Ball said. “We’ve tested this; night or day, it works. It’s pretty amazing,” he said. DEM also has the ability to send not only voice messages but digital messages, Ball said. “They aren’t as fancy as what you get in your email these days, with pictures and graphs and all that. But if it’s a collection of text, like what you might enter in from an incident form, we can transmit those very quickly at the state or federal level.”
As part of the exercise, Ball said he was asked to send the following message to the county: “Dealing with ferry traffic and people showing up on the shore. Schools are closed due to lack of power. Stores are closed. Try to check on elderly and nursing homes. Fire and PD driving around looking for issues and keeping people in.”
Compaan then communicated the dispatch he received from Snohomish County Wednesday morning: The 9.1 earthquake damaged the Edmonds Marina, with sinking vessels and fuel leaks, and the area was experiencing numerous power outages. As the exercise got underway, workshop participants began dealing with a flurry of mock reports: A landslide on Talbot Road swept six homes into Puget Sound; a service station near Ballinger Way leaked gasoline near a day care center; bricks fell off the building housing the Starbucks at 5th and Main; an apartment building collapsed at Point Edwards, killing five people.
During an actual emergency, many of these reports would come from public works, city police and fire crews doing a “windshield survey” of damages as they drive through predesignated zones of the city. Priority 1 incidents (immediate life-threatening situations) are called in to the EOC via car radio, cell phone or hand radio. Incidents rated as Priority 2 (non-life threatening such as downed blocking trees or vacant building collapses) and Priority 3 (other problems like dead power lines down or basement flooding) are noted on the survey form for later action.
Using guidelines supplied to the group, incidents were prioritized and noted on charts posted around the room. The group also tracked casualties, such as the number of injured, trapped and deceased; shelter needs and operations; and resource requests. Compaan reminded participants that the primary role of an Emergency Operation Center is not to serve as “incident command” — that is the job of police and fire officials. Rather, the EOC serves as the clearinghouse for information, resources and planning, and then triages responses for those situations and requests.
“In all likelihood, in a case of a very major earthquake like this, utilities are going to be knocked out, probably going to be fatalities, certainly injuries, there’s going to be a need for shelter,” Compaan said. “We need to be proactive in our thinking and our areas of expertise.”
At the end of the exercise, the group held a final briefing to reflect on lessons learned. One of the main takeaways: How difficult it will be to ensure that city employees — including police officers and key administrators — will actually be able to get to work in the case of an emergency, since many of them don’t live in Edmonds.
“We need to recognize that we will be calling our employees in and there will be many that just won’t be able to get here, because of where they live and compromised travel routes, or may not be able to get here for days,” said Assistant Police Chief Don Anderson. Ensuring the welfare of their own families will be a top priority for city employees “and we can’t expect them to be able to respond here and be effective until they know that their own families are safe and secure in a major earthquake,” he added.
Further complicating matters, the city won’t be able to rely on neighboring agencies for assistance, “as they will be facing the same challenges,” Anderson said.
“We’ve made a list of our people who can walk here quickly and who’s likely to be here first,” said Public Works Director Phil Williams.
Williams suggested it would be helpful to obtain a larger city map with color-coded push pins so that EOC participants could better track different scenarios across the city. And he also asked about the possibility of acquiring a software package and some big screen monitors to make it more efficient to enter and sort all the emergency data coming through, rather than dealing with multiple pieces of paper.
But Fire District 1 Interim Chief Brad Reading cautioned against relying too much on computer technology. “Don’t ever get rid of the paper because that other stuff can go bad in a disaster. Always have the paper,” he said.
In addition, Reading said it was important to consider the role that volunteers will play in any disaster response. “You are going to have volunteers. You can’t stop it,” Reading said. “They’re going to be in the middle of a mudslide; they’re going to be in the middle of a building collapse. So what we’ve determined in these type of incidents, we’re better off doing just-in-time training with them, making them part of your rescue.” In addition, if volunteers are signed up as “emergency workers” through the state, they receive liability insurance, he added.
Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite noted the importance of having procedures and manuals in place related to opening local buildings such as the Frances Anderson Center to serve as shelters during a disaster, plus other logistical details “that probably need some work outside of this just so we make sure we have things ready to go.”
At the end of morning, Chief Compaan thanked everyone for their participation, stating that the objectives of the exercise were met and “everyone did their part,” with people being willing to wear multiple hats. “That’s how it would actually happen,” he added. “Doing cross-discipline work.”
“I think we’ve done a great job today in identifying where weak spots are, and the real task will now be, how do you fix them?” said Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling. “It was just an absolutely tremendous exercise as long as we do the follow-up.”
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel