Practice promotes readiness
If practice makes perfect, events of the past year have pushed the West Virginia Office of Emergency Services a long way toward reaching that unreachable goal.
After coordinating the statewide response to last September's terrorist attacks, OES responded to a nearly unbroken series of floods and forest fires, operating on emergency basis for 147 days.
"Each time we exercise the system, we learn a little more and get a little better," said OES Director Stephen Kappa. "Today, we're in much better shape than we were on Sept. 11 of last year."
In addition to an abundance of on-the-job training in the past year, OES has gone through a sweeping modernization program and has doubled the size of its staff to 29.
The Emergency Operations Center in the basement of the State Capitol has had a complete makeover. Last year, situation reports were compiled in 3-inch binders, and updates were grease-penciled on a glass display board. Now, OES makes use of a state-of-the-art, Web-based system that operates the same emergency software used by the FBI to manage security at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"We had the new system up and running for the May floods, and there's no doubt it helped speed up the state's response," said Kappa. "We're adding Geographic Information Systems mapping of the state's critical infrastructure developments that will give us all kinds of critical information about places like chemical plants and dams without having to make a lot of calls."
Within the next year, every county in the state will have personnel trained to remotely tie into the state system to feed in new local data and learn what's happening in other parts of the state.
"We're going from the 19th century to the 21st century in one leap," said Clay Carney, communications officer for OES and a 20-year veteran of crisis management at the OES emergency operations center.
"In one year, we've gone from handwritten messages in binders to a system where you can watch streaming, live images from the scene, and zoom in to see detailed GIS mapping," Carney said.
During the past year, OES has also built a new mobile command center, which was deployed to McDowell County during the May floods.
The mobile command center is built in what was once a Division of Tourism promotional bus, which was stripped down and rigged with high-tech communications gear worth $60,000.
The mobile center is equipped with satellite phones, computers with Internet portals, and a "smart board" display system.
"During the May floods, when all the phones were out, it became the 911 system for the area," said Kappa. "We dispatched fire and rescue calls in the Panther area for three days, and we patched family members who were left without phone service through to their relatives."
Improved communications is also the reason behind the new emergency portable incident communication system, or EPICS, which OES uses to allow fire, police, military and other emergency responders to communicate directly via radio.
"Before 9/11, all the departments responding to an emergency had different radio systems," said Kappa. "EPICS lets fire departments, EMS personnel, National Guard and police agencies talk to each other on the same system, within a 60-mile radius."
To improve upon the state's ability to respond to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction, OES will soon begin equipping and training 17 fire departments across the state, using a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. A second $2.8 million grant to expand the program is pending.
Among new personnel hired in the doubling of OES staff during the past year are a full-time counter-terrorism planner and a geographic information systems coordinator.
Following last September's attacks, OES coordinated the identification of areas vulnerable to possible sabotage, and developed plans to protect many of the state's most highly visible structures, as well as chemical plants, critical bridges, water supplies, and power and gas transmission lines. The agency also holds biweekly homeland security meetings with state and federal agencies to trade information and coordinate planning and training.
OES developed a new protocol for responding to reports of weapons of mass destruction incidents, such as the 600 cases of suspicious letters, packages and substances found in West Virginia during the nationwide anthrax scare. No anthrax turned up in the state.
"We still get two or three of these calls a week," said Kappa.
To help West Virginians know what to do when the next emergency presents itself, OES developed, published and distributed 400,000 copies of "Getting Ready: A Family Emergency Guide." The booklet offers practical information on coping with emergencies ranging from natural disasters to acts of terrorism.
OES will hold exercises today to test the new technology and responses to disaster scenarios.
To contact staff writer Rick Steelhammer, use e-mail or call 348-5169.