Central-command approach went well during first big test, officials say

Central-command approach went well during first big test, officials say

20 January 2009

published by www.tdn.com

USA — Chief Dave LaFave is used to heading up Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue, but during this month’s floods he directed more than the fire district. For several days, LaFave was in charge of everything from city police to county public works crews in the first use of a centralized incident command center for Cowlitz County.

Officials say the plan allowed them to respond to emergencies more quickly and better direct resources — a vast improvement over previous flood responses.

“It was a hell of an effort,” LaFave said, saying both the leaders who ceded power and the workers who responded to the floods deserve high praise. “They all did a hell of a job.”

The model of having one center coordinate all resources isn’t new. It’s been used in the military for decades and in wildland fire management for decades. But local governments didn’t get into the act until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks. Part of the anti-terrorism response was the creation of a national incident management system for emergencies and a requirement of National Incident Management System training, LaFave said.

Training and coordination takes time and as far as officials know the Cowlitz County flooding was the first time the plan was used on an countywide basis, at least in Washington, said Vancouver Fire Chief Don Bivins.

“We’ve been practicing and training and talking it up with all administrative figures throughout the region,” Bivins said. “And this was the first opportunity to fully implement it in a wide scale event and prove that it did work.”

LaFave says he’s already getting requests from across the nation for details about how the system worked.

“The level of coordination and effort countywide is unprecedented in my experience around the nation,” said LaFave, who has responded to national emergencies like Hurricane Katrina and wildfires. “And no one or no agency tried to squeeze out from under the joint command. … Everyone involved were star performers.”

The plan — which began more than a year ago through a series of required training sessions — requires all local governments to agree to cede power to the central command post. That gives one group with one leader the ability to deploy staff and resources wherever they’re most needed.

Local governments and officials — including police, fire, public works and the county health department — signed temporary delegations of authority over their employees to LaFave and the incident command center. Cowlitz County Commissioner George Raiter also followed it up with an e-mail reminding county employees that during the emergency they should treat LaFave and his crews as their superiors and quickly comply with all requests.

LaFave tapped Cowlitz County Public Works Director Kent Cash as his second in command and also worked closely with Grover Laseke, head of the county’s Department of Emergency Management and an early proponent of a centralized response. An action plan was written overnight and was ready Wednesday, Jan. 7, when the worst of the flooding arrived. Each community in the county was designated a branch within the overall system and each had its own branch director to coordinate efforts through incident command.

The coordination meant that when people needed to be evacuated near Woodland and county deputies were busy elsewhere, LaFave was able to send Longview police to the scene along with search and rescue personnel with one order. In the past, that would have taken several telephone calls and likely led to questions from each agency about who was in command. Instead, there were no questions and people got helped sooner, LaFave said.

“We were able to maintain a situational awareness of the entire county,” LaFave said. “And that’s how we best protect the public.”

“I had to remind my staff once or twice when they’d come to me that we run everything through incident command,” said Jeff Cameron, head of Longview’s Public Works department. “But I think it went beautifully.”

Every need or request for service was prioritized by the central command based on four goals: 1) personal safety; 2) protecting critical infrastructure such as levees and water pumps; 3) keeping primary roads open and 4) protecting property.

Bivins, who like LaFave teaches incident command, said it not only provides better service, but it also gives taxpayers a bigger “bang for their buck” because every agency isn’t trying to launch its own operation and duplicating efforts.

“It was a very effective response,” Raiter said. “It allowed us to respond as we needed to respond. By delegating authority we could move resources where they were most needed.”

And, while agencies and officials ceded direct authority to LaFave, they weren’t left on the sidelines.

“We were kept constantly updated with conference calls,” said county Commissioner Kathleen Johnson.

“We got really frequent updates so we didn’t have to spend any time searching that information out,” said Susan Barker, interim superintendent in Castle Rock where school was cancelled early as local roads started flooding. “They were very good about including us.”

The centralized command is new and wasn’t without problems. Bivins is conducting a debriefing this week to help everyone learn from any glitches and improve for next time.

Communication with the media and public wasn’t as quick or clear as it could have been the first day of flooding, with delays in press releases and notices of evacuations. That was fixed by Thursday, LaFave said, partly because the centralized command allowed him to borrow public information officers from several city and county agencies.

Likewise, officials are reviewing why some residents of the Villa San Martin in Kelso weren’t told to evacuate before their apartments started flooding. LaFave said an official talked to an apartment manager on scene and was told residents were evacuating, but apparently not every resident knew or left in time.

It’s possible language barriers contributed to problem at Villa San Martin and that will be examined, LaFave said. It’s also possible that officials need to do a better job of educating people in those flood-prone areas to be extra vigilant in bad weather.

“There’s probably some preventative education that we could do in those areas to tell people ‘this happens very fast in this area and you may know it before we do,’ “ he said.

Still, given the nearly 3,000 people evacuated from Toutle to Woodland, LaFave said the flood response went “extremely well,” and will only get better as everyone learns from this event. Compared to the 1996 flooding in the area, the 2009 response was “a night and day difference,” LaFave said.

“In 1996 every agency was trying to keep up and doing its own thing,” he said. “We weren’t leveraging the support or the resources.”

“It really worked out well,” agreed county Commissioner Axel Swanson. “And I think it will go better in the future.”

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