Local News

June 3, 2014

Disaster drill prepares Whitfield County for the worst

Two bodies lie next to a vehicle that was flipped over a few minutes earlier by the winds of a tornado.

A campus police officer checking on the scene at Dalton State College soon falls victim to the same chemical, which had leaked out of containers being carried in the vehicle.

Fortunately, firefighters from the Dalton Fire Department — dressed in special suits and breathing gear to protect themselves — arrive on the scene a few minutes later and are able to help the injured officer walk to a “decon area” so the dangerous chemicals can be washed off him.

Across the interstate, meanwhile, workers at Hamilton Medical Center are evacuating the hospital, which has been heavily damaged by the same tornado.

It may sound like a scene from a disaster movie, but actually it was just part of a recent regional, full-scale exercise coordinated by the Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency, the Georgia Hospital Association and the University of Georgia designed to give local emergency workers a chance to test their reactions if such an event actually happened in Whitfield County.

“The reason we do drills like this,” said Whitfield County Emergency Services Director Claude Craig, “is to get everybody operating off the same sheet of music so that in the event of a disaster, we will all know what to do because you respond as you are trained.”

Many years ago, such coordination between agencies wasn’t always the case, but now all emergency responders follow guidelines set forth by the National Incident Management System.

“Those guidelines want you to have a unified command where everybody’s operating under the same roof,” Craig said. “We also hold drills like this to test our ability to communicate with each other. We want to see what our strengths are, and what our weaknesses are.”

The scenario for the drill, which was several months in the planning (including help from University of Georgia officials), was Hamilton Medical Center being struck by a tornado, similar to the situation that actually happened in Joplin, Mo. The goal was to see how the various local agencies would react to an evacuation of the hospital.

Also included in the drill was a hazardous materials exercise involving a vehicle parked at Dalton State College that contained a rolling meth lab. The tornado overturned the vehicle and the chemicals being used to make the methamphetamine started leaking into the parking lot, killing the two men in the car and overwhelming a police officer who came to check on the scene.

Participants in the drill were Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency, 911, Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office, Whitfield County Fire Department, Hamilton EMS, Dalton Police Department, Dalton Fire Department, Dalton State College Public Safety and Whitfield County LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee) — all partnered with UGA, the Georgia Hospital Association and the state Department of Public Health.

“One of the things we did in this exercise, too, by doing a regional exercise is not only was Whitfield County struck but so was Gordon County, so were other counties that we would usually get mutual aid from to help us,” Craig said.

“Well, in an event of this magnitude, they’re not going to have anybody to help because they’re going to be taking care of their own. So the drill was done to see where we stand — can we do this without mutual aid? I had a couple of requests that we weren’t able to handle through mutual aid that I had to pass up the line to the state.”

Afterwards, Craig said he believes that the agencies worked well together but he noted some weaknesses in communication.

The goal is to use NIFOG — the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide — to get all the agencies using the same radio frequency so they are able to communicate with each other during a disaster.

“We did that to some point,” Craig said, “but we noticed there were some communications issues between agencies getting everybody on the same sheet of music.”

Of course, the idea behind an exercise is “to find any hiccups now that we might have and get them taken care of before we have a real disaster,” Craig said.

“We’ll also be doing an after-action review soon where we get all the key players in a room and we talk about what went wrong and what went right and what we think we can do to improve the things that went wrong,” he said.

Overall, though, Craig said his first impression was that the exercise went well.

“You’ll never be prepared fully for an event of the magnitude of April 27, 2011,” he said, referencing the tragedy in Joplin, Mo., “but I feel that we are better prepared to march on in an incident like that.”

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