Coconino County Exercise Emphasizes Coordination, Communication Among Response Agencies

Coconino County Exercise Emphasizes Coordination, Communication Among Response Agencies

An Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter practices water bucket drops during a full-scale exercise in Coconino County on April 29. The scenario included multiple fatalities and serious injuries from an explosion, a chlorine leak at a water treatment plant, an evacuation caused by a wildfire and a suspicious package.

FLAGSTAFF, AZ--Ask any emergency manager and he or she will tell you that coordination and communication are the two most important things in any emergency response. As it so happens, they’re also the two skills that require the most practice.

 

Coconino County held a full-scale disaster response exercise on April 29 at the Flagstaff Fire Department Training Facility to test response plans and procedures in preparation for wildfire season. The Slide Fire, which burned over 21,000 acres in Oak Creek Canyon last May, sparked a few short weeks after last year’s exercise.

 

According to Coconino County Emergency Manager Robert Rowley, the exercise’s mass-casualty scenario was designed to stress the fatality management, public health and emergency medical service capabilities of the Flagstaff area response community. The scenario included multiple fatalities and serious injuries from an explosion, a chlorine leak at a water treatment plant, an evacuation caused by a wildfire and a suspicious package.

 

“We designed the scenario for this exercise to force unified command between fire, police and emergency services,” said Rowley. “Unified command doesn’t happen organically; it takes practice. An incident of this size would require city and county agencies to come together.”

 

“Unified command” refers to a type of organizational structure that facilitates interagency communication and cooperative decision-making on emergency incidents that involve multiple jurisdictions. For example, an emergency response could cross geographic or political boundaries, and/or require fire, police and emergency medical services to work together.

 

The exercise evaluators, including Jan Lindner, Nichole Fortson and Dan Varner from the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA), Division of Emergency Management, were interested in seeing communication, coordination and cooperation among the participants.

 

More than 14 agencies and non-governmental organizations, including the City of Flagstaff police and fire departments, the Coconino and Kaibab national forests, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Coconino County Sheriff’s Department, the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and several area fire districts and departments participated in the half-day exercise.

 

Lindner, Fortson and Varner represent the Exercise Branch at the Division of Emergency Management. Collectively, the trio facilitated or participated in 41 exercises in 2014. Fortson said it’s not unusual for a county to ask the Exercise Branch to stand in as a guest evaluator or controller or even actor in an exercise.

 

“We offer our services to the Whole Community and if we’re available we do all we can to support our exercise partners,” said Varner. “Sometimes they need help evaluating an exercise. Other times they just need someone to play the role of a victim.”

 

“Whenever we’re asked to help evaluate an exercise,” added Lindner, “I see it as an opportunity for the Exercise Branch to provide customer service, to network with stakeholders and to learn more about how the county functions” in an emergency situation.

 

Fortson says as an exercise planner an added bonus of supporting the counties is getting to see how first responders read and react to different emergency situations. She can then draw from those experiences to write truer-to-life exercise scenarios. “I improve as an exercise evaluator and designer with every exercise I go to,” said Fortson. “I always leave an exercise with ideas for improving either my process of evaluation or the next exercise.”

 

The “next exercise” is a multijurisdictional tabletop being facilitated by the U.S. Department Homeland Security. Called Cyber Guard Prelude ‘15, the exercise will involve the FBI; DEMA; the state departments of Administration, Homeland Security and Public Safety; the Arizona Attorney General’s Office; the Arizona National Guard, and the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center in the evaluation of decision-making processes, response plans and interagency communication.