Valley public safety agencies plan for disasters
October 2, 2008 · Updated 10:44 AM
SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and their aftermath of misery in the Gulf Coast, have left many people wondering what they would do in a similar situation.
While natural disasters bring up the unexpected, local public safety agencies have plans in place to handle people and property should such events occur.
Eric Holdeman, division director for the King County Office of Emergency Management, said that county emergency services are set up so each disaster is initially dealt with on the lowest possible level. If the problem is beyond the capabilities of a city, it is passed up through the county, state and, if need be, federal levels, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be called.
Individual cities, however, are always the first line of emergency response. City mayors can declare emergencies that allow them to seek additional assistance, but the primary response is always at the local level.
For Snoqualmie, the first step often starts with its Emergency Communication Center (ECC), located inside the city's fire station on Snoqualmie Parkway. The ECC's communication capacities include everything from state-of-the-art devices to a Morse code apparatus.
"We have communication coming out of our ears," said Snoqualmie Police Chief Jim Schaffer. "With the history of flooding in the Valley, we've been operating an ECC before there were ECCs on the Eastside."
During an emergency, all the policy and decision makers in the city gather at the ECC so they can analyze situations and make decisions quickly. The regional disaster plan provides shared resources including public and private agencies, Metro buses, hospitals, public safety departments and state mobilization. Snoqualmie is also part of the Coalition of Small Police Agencies, which includes more than 160 personnel throughout 11 cities.
The emergency most likely to hit Snoqualmie is flooding. Floods usually allow for time to prepare and predict who might need to evacuate. The toughest emergencies to deal with are those that develop quickly, like sudden winter storms or earthquakes. "Those are the ones you can't prepare people enough for," said Snoqualmie Fire Chief Bob Rowe. "We have to be in full operation from the start."
During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, Snoqualmie had a major flaw in its emergency operations, but the city has been able to rectify that, Rowe said. The emergency radios failed during the quake and there was no communication. Following that incident all city staff were required to become ham radio operators and the city was able to secure a Federal Homeland Security grant that was used to purchase a wide range of communication devices.
In fact, Snoqualmie looked quite a bit like New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina) during the flood of 1990 when 80 percent of the city was under water and boats were needed to get around town. An Army duck (amphibious vehicle) was used to rescue people from their homes. Schaffer said some people take quite a lot of convincing to leave their homes in such situations, sometimes risking the lives of public safety officers who eventually have to return to rescue them later.
In the last big flood, no one had to be forced out of their home, Schaffer said. "We were able to get 95 percent of those at risk out by appealing to their sense of survival."
There's little chance that looting would break out in Snoqualmie as it did in New Orleans, but Snoqualmie police are still prepared to deal with it. "The potential is always there," Schaffer said.
In addition to city police, fire and other city staff, Snoqualmie has the Snoqualmie Emergency Communications and Support Team, or SECAST; a mobile and motivated team of volunteers formed to provide support services to the command structure of the ECC. The group meets once a month at the fire station and participates in training activities throughout the year.
North Bend's emergency services come from larger districts outside of its city government. King County Sheriff's Office provides law enforcement to the area while Eastside Fire and Rescue (EFR) provides emergency services to both North Bend and the unincorporated areas surrounding the city. EFR Chief Lee Soptich said that EFR bases its emergency services around the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a series of standardized protocols handed down by President Bush following the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. Soptich said that in the event of an emergency, there are 33 protocols public safety officials can ensure, but the basic five are operations, finance, command, logistics and planning. Every North Bend employee is required to go through NIMS training.
The city administrator, George Martinez, would be in charge in case of an emergency, but Martinez would answer to the mayor and City Council and said he would rely on fire and police leaders to head any rescue efforts. The city's fire station and city hall would be the primary locations for an emergency operations center (EOC), but since those are vulnerable to flooding, Soptich said EFR has two mobile EOCs that can act as operations centers. Soptich said EFR makes sure it has at least two, if not three, different ways to communicate in case a natural disaster knocks out one of its means of communication.
In case of an encroaching flood or fire, EFR can advise those in danger about the need to evacuate an area, but they can't force anyone to leave their homes. They can prevent people who have left from coming back to their homes, but they can't use force to make people leave. If a person refuses to budge in a dire emergency, Soptich said EFR personnel will ask them for a contact name and phone number just in case.
Soptich said a good test of the EFR's emergency communication and evacuation capabilities happened two years ago when a brush fire started outside Carnation. The fire spread, threatening homes, and 70 agencies responded. One of the things EFR found it needed to improve was its communication to people asked to evacuate. Different agencies gave people different information. For instance, people in a home may have merely received a warning about a fire from one agency, but a couple moments later told to leave right away by another. Soptich said EFR also realized it needed to coordinate a better evacuation area. Some people were advised to leave, but were not told where to go.
"We learned a lot from the incident," he said.
North Bend police services are handled by the King County Sheriff's Office precinct in Kenmore, which has a branch on Boalch Avenue. It is headed by chief Joe Hodgson, who said it is hard to predict what the sheriff's office would do in an emergency.
"Each emergency has its own personality," Hodgson.
What he can say is that North Bend has a deep pool of resources to draw from. Just as Snoqualmie has a coalition of small cities to go to for help, Hodgson said North Bend has all the resources of the King County Sheriff's Office.
As for evacuating residents, Hodgson said that he, too, does not have the authority to force people to leave their homes. He said that if such an order were to occur, it would come from the state and be followed by agencies below it.
If law and order needed to be restored, Hodgson said the King County Sheriff's Office could lock down the city if need be.
Like North Bend, Fall City relies on the King County Sheriff's Office for its police, but its fire service is provided by King County Fire Protection District No. 27. Chief Chris Connor said the department has a flood plan in place that involves calling everyone in flood-prone areas. As the flood stages advance, Connor said the department will continue to call people to warn them of the danger.
Connor said the department may stop short of going out to retrieve people from their homes. If no one answers a phone, the department will assume they have already left. If a person says they would like to leave but can't, Connor said the department will try to help, b