Fake tornado prepares county emergency disaster plans

When an imaginary tornado swept through the county of Ponoka, Ponoka County and corresponding disaster relief services

When an imaginary tornado swept through the county of Ponoka, Ponoka County and corresponding disaster relief services were prepared for action.

Wednesday, Feb. 11 saw members of Ponoka County staff, Ponoka RCMP, Ponoka Fire Department, Alberta Health Services, the Summer Village of Parkland Beach and Family Community Support Services (FCSS), as well as others participating in a tabletop mock disaster exercise to ensure a plan can quickly be executed in the event of a real scenario.

“We want to exercise and refresh elected officials in their roles,” said consultant Ken Kendall.

Kendall took participants through the first several days following a disaster, should the aftermath require that much attention; outlining the hierarchy of command, procedures and decisions.

“In an emergency, responsibilities and all decisions go to the director of emergency management,” said Kendall. “Council takes a step back.”

In the case of an emergency, the task would belong to county CAO Charlie Cutforth.

During the exercise, Kendall was sure to go over when and how a state of local emergency can be called, as some municipalities did not know how in the face of a real emergency.

Under the exercise scenario, on July 11, 2015 a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for central Alberta. By that afternoon, Environment Canada had activated the Alberta Emergency Alert due to a tornado that had touched down outside of Rimbey.

With the strong winds gusting through Ponoka County, power is out throughout the county and phone and cell service is intermittent. “In some cases, you guys might actually have to use runners,” said Kendall

The tornado struck Parkland Beach, Deer Park and Raymond Shores; as well as the campground in Rimbey.

Following a disaster in the area, Ponoka Fire Chief Ted Dillon and RCMP staff Sgt. Cameron Chisholm were instructed on their first steps of action, including surveying the area and reporting back to Cutforth on the damages and casualties.

“But I’ve got to remember this is a Saturday in July, manpower is going to be down” said Dillon.

Under Cutforth, the positions for operations, planning, logistics, liaison, safety, information and deputy would be filled.

Depending on the damages heavy equipment would be brought in and staging areas would be set up.

The team was told the first priority of an incident command system is lives and public safety. Once those affected are safe, it comes down to aftermath attention. “After that it’s just cleanup,” said Kendall.

Under coaching from the fire department, emergency medical services would notify hospitals on the gravity of the situation.

Being July, in a lake area, the high number of tourists would be an added challenge. “It goes way beyond just the residents out there,” said Cutforth.

Because of summer weather, hydration would also be a concern. For incidents that take longer than 12 hours, fatigue, lighting and food must all be addressed.

FCSS would be in charge of an information gathering centre for the possible couple of thousand people affected, as well as pets. In an emergency, a high percentage of people will leave the area to stay with family and friends, making it difficult to keep track of the safe, injured, dead and missing.

FCSS director Shannon Boyce-Campbell feels an online registry site would be an effective tracking tool.

“I’m unaware if anything has been set up provincially,” said Kendall.

County Coun. Mark Matejka was eager to find out what the councilors could do following an emergency. Kendall says their best option is to stay in touch with the public and continually feed them information on relief efforts and other necessary information

“Public information is going to be huge here,” said Kendall.

The county exercise was one in a series of three to be completed by May 1. Kendall says the Town of Ponoka will have a similar exercise in addition to a more comprehensive regional one.