Lessons were learned during the four-day "Cascadia Rising" drill, resulting in a successful exercise for the region’s emergency responders, local officials, health and medical staff, private industry and emergency operations center personnel who participated in the drill.
"Events like this are useful in that you can plan for it, but when you actually run it you can see what worked and what didn't work, and what would become critical quickly and what doesn't," said Kootenai County Commissioner Marc Eberlein.
The large-scale exercise drill took place throughout Idaho, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia with the epicenter of the "9.0 earthquake" to have taken place along the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of Oregon and causing a "tsunami." In North Idaho, the efforts focused on the wave of evacuees who would seek shelter away from the coastal areas that would be devastated by the earthquake and subsequent events.
Sandy Von Behren, director for the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management, said the exercise took a year and a half to plan, and "has been well worth every minute."
"The whole purpose of an exercise is testing plans and procedures, so that's what we did," Von Behren said. "We all had plans that we needed to test and we all had exercises that we were required to do, and we designed one huge exercise and came together to do one to test all of the different plans."
Von Behren said the OEM had their systems and processes in place, but sometimes things don't quite go as planned. She said the county's Emergency Operations Center was set up three days prior to the exercise to make sure everything was up and running, ensuring that all the telephones and computers were working properly. Once the training began, they still had real-life trouble with the equipment and during an emergency, "information sharing is key," Von Behren said.
One test for the agencies involved was finding the best way to share information, the quickest and most efficient way. Von Behren said they utilized WebEOC, an incident management website where they could communicate with states and counties and all the different partners, and found there were "some good things about it and some bad things about it." So one thing they will look at is whether there is a way to improve it.
"That's one of the things that we want to work on is identifying our best means of communication so that it's efficient and effective, and getting to the right people," Von Behren said.
Eberlein said one of the first things they noticed was a shortage of fuel, which is especially needed for emergency services to keep running — fire trucks, ambulance, police — and is something they would need to address more quickly in a real emergency.
Fuel and supplies would quickly run short, and Von Behren said they do not want to wait until they find out the stores and gas stations are running out of fuel and supplies.
"We learned in this exercise we are going to think immediately about getting food and getting fuel in here before it gets to be a problem and being ahead of the game — being proactive instead of reactive," Von Behren said.
If more supplies and fuel are not available locally, she said they would immediately request assistance from the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In a real situation with such a far-reaching effect, the resources would be limited, so the sooner the county orders what it needs, the more likely it would be to receive the fuel and supplies in a timely manner.
The briefings began Tuesday, with a conference call on Wednesday. On Thursday, Panhandle Health District set up a medical needs shelter alongside Red Cross at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds as the "evacuees" began to arrive.
Melanie Collett, spokeswoman for Panhandle Health, said several members of the medical staff from Panhandle Health, Kootenai Health and Heritage Health helped out, as well as about 50 volunteers who acted as evacuees, some in need of medical attention.
She said the Panhandle Health District’s official after-action report will be published soon, but said there were a lot of good things shared in their reports. She said nurses felt prepared for the "surge" of patients and various scenarios they practiced.
"It was our first time practicing this in a full-scale, fully functional exercise, and it was very successful," Collett said.
Dean Keck, director of training and exercise for Panhandle Health District, acted as the lead controller and exercise director during the airplane "crash" at the Coeur d'Alene Airport Friday. He said the drill tested the airports response plan and the county mass casualty and mass fatality plans. He described the scenario — a passenger plane carrying about 30 evacuees was diverted from Spokane to Coeur d'Alene. As it landed, the plane struck a small commuter plane carrying two people. The fuselage of the larger plane broke in half and caught fire.
Northern Lakes Fire District was the first to respond to the scene, activating an alarm that brings in more resources, including more EMS and Life Flight as well as several fire departments from throughout the county.
With all of the volunteer "passengers" covered in blood, eight were transported to Kootenai Health, one by Life Flight, Keck said.
Kim Anderson, spokeswoman for Kootenai Health, said the drill went as planned as far as taking in "patients" from the airplane drill, and Kootenai Health did not identify any need for process changes.
"Conducting process drills like this help us ensure that our processes work correctly, and enables us to have good responses in emergency situations," Anderson said.
Keck, as well as Northern Lakes Fire personnel, said they are still working on putting together the after-action report, but Keck said there were areas for improvement and overall the drill went "very well."
"There was really great, participation, cooperation, communication and teamwork amongst all those agencies," Keck said.
Northern Lakes Division Chief, Mike Mather, said they did a quick hotwash, or after-action discussion, Friday to identify some key points regarding protocol and procedure during the "crash."
"Dealing with different response protocols from different agencies, everybody thinks a little different in the different guidelines on how to respond to various incidents," Mather said. "When you put that all together under one command structure it can be difficult."
Being the largest exercise they have ever done and working with agencies they don't work with on a regular basis, Mather said the bottom line is the it went well and was "very beneficial" for the responders and the community.
Jim Lyon, deputy fire marshal and public information officer with Northern Lakes, is also a lead PIO for EOC when needed, so he worked both sides during the exercise. Lyon said he was "inundated with information" on the first day, following news agencies that simulated real footage of the tsunami and social media coverage.
"It was a lot of frustration at first, as incidents usually are, whether they are real or simulated," Lyon said, adding that they had some technology problems, such as the phones. "From that point of view, it was kind of a controlled chaos at the beginning."
He said those involved slowly got into a rhythm and by Thursday things were running "pretty smoothly." During Friday's airplane "crash," Lyon said there was a security breach when a man who was not supposed to be there got inside the perimeter. He also said, in a real-life scenario, the Hagadone News Network would not have been allowed on the scene.
One thing that was noticed by all the personnel involved in the training was the amount of people who volunteered their time to help — a good indication of how the community would come together in a real emergency.
Eberline said the community is "very fortunate" to have so many people willing to participate to make the scenario work.
According to an email to the Hagadone News Network from Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, 850 Idaho responders participated in the exercise.
"I was extremely impressed by the level of professionalism and dedication that our civilian and military emergency personnel brought to this training exercise," Otter stated in the email. "We hope it never happens, but if it does, Idahoans should feel some comfort knowing we have very capable men and women trained to deal with such catastrophic events."
Von Behren said volunteers came from Bonneville, Bonner and Spokane counties. Agencies volunteered their time in planning the exercise and conducting the exercise, and Von Behren said the outside agencies coming in to help allowed the local agencies to play a part rather than being the ones running the exercise.
All the agencies involved spread the word of volunteers needed as extras to play the part medical patients and evacuees.
"It's really cool to see how the community has come together and how the partnerships that we work to build really do work," Collett said. "And we have been lucky that we haven't had a disaster like this, but it is important that we practice."
If there is ever a real disaster in the region, whether it is an earthquake or other catastrophic event, it would directly affect North Idaho, Von Behren said.
"We are very fortunate to live here in Kootenai County, because in Coeur d'Alene we have a lot of resources that are right here," Von Behren said.