Municipal control group responds to ‘ice storm’

FORT FRANCES—Called the “storm of the century” by the media at the time, the ice storm that hit eastern Ontario in January, 1998 left more than 1.2 million people without power.
Now imagine if that happened here.
That notion was the basis of an emergency exercise conducted by local agencies, such as the town, fire, OPP, Treaty Three Police, CN police, ambulance, DSSAB, health unit, hospital, mill, and other agencies (known collectively as the Municipal Control Group), which got together to set up an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) at the Civic Centre last Wednesday.
It was the first time such a drill was held, and those on hand started off by watching a video of the ice storm to set the mood.
Immediately afterwards, all of them were required to sign in and get numbered tags, which, in the event of a real emergency, would be used to keep track of who was in and out of the EOC—which basically is a command centre based out of the committee room downstairs at the town hall.
Representatives then picked up resource boxes filled with materials, such as log forms, message forms, pens, and pencils, and went through the contents to see if everything they needed was there.
Splitting up into teams and setting up several stations, some representatives also were responsible for hooking up a total of seven phones into sets of jacks around the EOC.
“They’re part of what we call a priority phone system,” Fort Frances Fire Chief Gerry Armstrong explained in a follow-up interview Friday.
“What happens is when we activate an EOC, we contact Bell Canada and they give those phones a priority.
“So if I were to phone you at your office from one of those phones when it was a priority, whoever you were talking to would be cut off to allow me to get through to you,” Chief Armstrong added.
Last Wednesday, these representatives had to make two phone calls to anyone they knew to ensure the lines worked.
Acting as EOC manager, Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig then called all the representatives to gather around the meeting tables.
The OPP, for example, was asked about evacuation measures, the Northwestern Health Unit gave an update regarding food and water safety, while the hospital had to give a status report regarding patient care and whether the back-up generator was running.
In an emergency, these duty cycle meetings would be held every 15 minutes, at which time representatives in attendance would give updates as to various issues.
The radio station also would be contacted to let it know about the crisis. That contact would be maintained so regular reports could be issued to the public over the airwaves.
(During a real emergency, media would not be allowed in the EOC; council chambers upstairs would serve as the media communications centre).
The mayor also would have to officially declare a state of emergency.
After the exercise, which lasted just a little more than an hour, representatives offered a few ideas for improvements in the future.
These included:
•a fixed seating plan for representatives;
•minimizing the number of representatives from the same agency responding to avoid redundancies (last Wednesday, most agencies had a representative and at least one alternate attend);
•ensuring the emergency sirens are loud enough to be heard everywhere in town (this point was made after a complaint the sirens were not loud near the arena); and
•running field tests for back-up generators, such as the one at the Civic Centre, to ensure they would work in an emergency.
Chief Armstrong said he “pretty pleased” with how the exercise went last Wednesday, adding the Municipal Control Group has gotten together before to train over the past few years but never actually got together and set up the EOC.
He plans to hold similar exercises in the future—except this time with no warning. Possible crises could include train derailment or even an industrial disaster at the local mill, he hinted.
“What we’ll do is notify the newspaper and the radio station, sound the siren, make some calls, and see what happens,” Chief Armstrong remarked.
(Fort Frances Times)