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Exercise Slow Release tests disaster management skills

Exercise Slow Release went down in Barrhead Feb. 22, and it took a co-ordinated effort to respond to the mock disaster.

Exercise Slow Release went down in Barrhead Feb. 22, and it took a co-ordinated effort to respond to the mock disaster.

Disasters can happen anywhere, any time, and it’s for that reason the County and Town of Barrhead host annual disaster management sessions. This year’s tabletop exercise took place at the Barr-head Fire Department.

Mark Oberg, Director of Disaster Management Services for the County, said the meetings brought to the table about 30 representatives from the County and the Town, as well as other partners like the health unit, the fire department, the RCMP and the ambulance service. The idea, he said, is to have everyone on the same page, so that if something goes wrong in the community, all of the partners can work together to resolve the situation.

“It’s an opportunity for us to discuss what the process would be in the event of a disaster,” Oberg said. “We can never know what the disaster might be, but we have to have the contacts in place to respond to it.”

The tabletop exercise lasted for about three and a half hours, which is typical, Oberg said.

It started with some instruction from Ed Haines of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency. Then, participants were presented with Exercise Slow Release, which involved an anhydrous ammonia leak located in an area west of Barrhead. Efforts had to be co-ordinated to address the situation, and it was an effective tool to help iron out any wrinkles in the response efforts, Oberg said.

In Alberta, there is potential for disasters in just about any season, and in any community, which is why disaster management exercises take place all over the province. In Barrhead, a flood in 1986 blocked access into Barrhead for quite some time, Oberg said. The Paddle River’s water level swelled too high, and people couldn’t use the bridge.

“That flood separated the town from residents living south of the community for a few days,” he said, adding situations like that are the reason for tabletop sessions.

There are also threats from power outages. If a power outage occurs in the middle of winter, the response team has to deal with people who have limited mobility, such as those who live in senior’s homes or at hospitals. That’s a disaster that could easily happen, Oberg said. There is also the risk of tornadoes right across the province, and there have been deadly tornadoes in the past.

As well, Barrhead is situated at the crossroads of two highways, so there is risk involved with trucks transporting dangerous goods.

“The thing about disaster scenarios is, you don’t know what the actual disaster will be before it happens. That’s why we gather together and put into place our plans and contacts, so that no matter the disaster that happens, we are able to co-ordinate an appropriate response.”

Every year, the County and Town stage a mock disaster that puts to the test the information they learn at the tabletop exercise. However, there have been some significant administrative changes at the Town, Oberg said, and that means they are holding off on the mock disaster.

What the mock scenario is doesn’t really matter, he said. The real value is in bringing together the County, the Town and their partners and discussing who is responsible for what in the event of a disaster.

“We felt we should still go ahead with the tabletop exercise,” Oberg said. “We’re not in any rush to do the major disaster scenario, and there’s no pressure from the province, so we’ll wait until we are able to do that more effectively.”

For all intents and purposes, the mock scenario will look like the real thing, and will even involve actors, he said. However, it would be most beneficial if the new Town manager were involved in the process.

“That just makes sense.”

As for what the disaster scenario would be, the County had something in mind already, but between the County and the Town, they will be discussing other ideas once the new town manager is in place, Oberg said.

Town mayor Brian Schulz said he found the meeting very intuitive.

“It’s amazing when you think of the reality of how important decisions are,” he said. “Every decision has an outcome that can be detrimental.”

Every person on a disaster management team has a role to play, and every position is just as important as the next, he said. Everyone has to work together as a team, and be prepared for the worst.

“I think we, the Town and County, are prepared to handle a situation,” Schulz said. “As a joint exercise between the Town and County, I think it went over extremely well.”

A tabletop discussion is a lot different than a real disaster, he added, because there is no pressure to save lives. That being said, without exercises like tabletop discussions, municipalities won’t know how best to handle those situations.

Furthermore, teams need to trust the people in command, he said. For the Town, Kathy Vickery is the director who would join Oberg in co-ordinating disaster management efforts. Schulz said both Vickery and Oberg demonstrated great leadership during the tabletop exercise.

“Trust and training – that’s what we need the most,” Schulz said. “Trust is an easy word to say, but it’s hard to actually trust someone when there are lives at risk.”

Schulz said he looks forward to the mock disaster that will take place to test the information learned at the tabletop discussion.

County Reeve Bill Lee said there were three lessons he took from the meeting that needs to be shared with ratepayers.

First, he said he was surprised to learn that the federal government expects residents to be able to survive on their own for 72 hours following a disaster.

“When the power is out, and there’s no water, how are people expected to look after themselves for 72 hours,” he questioned, adding most farmers in rural Alberta are well-stocked and could likely last well past 72 hours, but people living in towns and cities don’t necessarily think that far ahead and would be hard pressed to come up with meals for three straight days.

Another lesson he took to heart was the idea of a grab-and-go bag that should contain such items as non-perishable food items, water, a first-aid kit and cash. In the event of a power outage, residents would not be able to use debit cards.

“When someone shows up to evacuate you, you need to go now,” he said. “It’s a good idea to have a bag prepared.”

The third bit of information Lee said residents should know about is called a shelter in place, and it involves residents preparing their homes in the event they are not allowed to leave. Disasters where this would come into play include a gas leak, for example.

“These were important lessons, and I think we need to share it with our residents,” Lee said.

As for the tabletop experience, he said he believes the three-and-a-half hour session was well worth the time.

“It opened a lot of eyes,” he said. “It’s all about preparedness, because you never know if and what a disaster will be.”

Barrhead RCMP detachment Sgt. Bob Dodds said putting into practice a response scenario is critical for disaster management, and getting to participate in a hands-on major mock disaster is even better.

“It’s one thing to get together and talk, but until you can put the wheels on the road, that’s when you find out if it works,” Dodds said. “This is the place to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Furthermore, preparing for disasters allows everyone involved to become familiar with the other people who will be responding, he said, and added an actual disaster isn’t an ideal situation to be shaking hands with someone you’ve never before met.