Scenarios test Carroll disaster response

County says it's ready if Y2K prompts chaos

July 23, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County tested yesterday its ability to handle emergencies despite any technical glitches that might occur if some computer systems fail when the year 2000 begins.

County and private agencies tested reactions to a stranded train, a jet stalled over the airport, a failed water chlorination system and a gas explosion. They simulated the evacuation of a nursing home and creation of an emergency shelter. Every event was complicated by communications outages and power failures in computer systems.

Some of the problems were far-fetched, but the idea was to stretch county resources to the maximum, challenge systems and spur the analytical thinking of those responding.

A group of 28 had to answer one crisis expeditiously and move on to the next one.

They sent Carroll Transit vehicles to return New Year's Eve revelers stranded on a train in a remote area; ordered a prop plane to inspect the jet's landing gear and guide it into the airport; and hooked the water supply into an alternate system.

Officials said they passed the series of about 25 catastrophes with high marks, although a state-prepared evaluation will not be ready for about a month.

"We played scenario after scenario with a wide array of agencies involved," said Steven Powell, county director of management and budget and coordinator of the daylong exercise. "We tested our processes and systems related to emergency preparedness. Our systems handled it well.

"County agencies really are prepared and really had the processes to put in place," he said.

Computer systems have had to be reprogrammed so that they recognize the year 2000 (or Y2K). If they don't, system breakdowns can occur.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency developed the scenarios, which were repeated in various forms in the 22 other Maryland counties, Baltimore and Ocean City. One Carroll participant was an emergency worker in Frederick County. He thought he might have to race off when his pager notified him of an emergency. Then it beeped "test, test, test."

Participants followed scripts, but organizers were not averse to complicating the disasters further, said Powell.

"If the group fixed the emergency too quickly, we made them worse with complications, like moving the snow front forward and adding an outbreak of food poisoning to a shelter," he said.

The response could rely only on existing resources and participants could not fabricate help that would not be readily attainable. Actions had to be as real as possible given resources and agencies' capabilities.

"We used contingency plans and process manuals to make sure all preparations were under way just as they would be in a real emergency disaster," said Powell. "Y2K could exacerbate any power outage or communication."

The exercise pointed out a need for an Incident Command Center, which could show each agency what others were doing to respond, Powell said. The county has no such mechanism to share information, but could add an online bulletin board to its Emergency Operations Center.

"It could tell us what everybody is doing, almost like a war room, showing us what everyone is doing at every moment," said Powell.

In September, the county plans several public meetings, held in the evenings, to give an overview of the county's emergency response system.

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