"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.