County focuses on emergencies

Readiness Week looks at scenarios, introduces preparation efforts


It's a sunny morning, but something is awry at Centennial Park in Columbia. The ground near the Centennial Lake dam is soft, and water is dripping out of the pipe outfall. Drops become a trickle, and suddenly there's a loud noise, like a bomb detonating.

A motorist calls 911 to say water is coming over Route 108, and homeowners on Woodland Road report that water is starting to seep into their homes.

What happens now?

That mock disaster scenario, the focus of a "tabletop discussion" yesterday involving dozens of county and state officials, was one in a series of exercises mounted as part of Howard County's Community Readiness Week.

"Every plan has opportunities to get better. The way you get better is you get a bunch of people together in a safe environment to build relationships, look over the plan and discuss it," said Joseph Herr, county fire chief. "You find out if there are any gaps."

The week's activities were co- ordinated by Howard County government and the Community Emergency Response Network, a group established after Sept. 11, 2001, to develop a communitywide disaster response plan.

The network's functions include interagency coordination, shelter planning, communications enhancement and exercise development. Yesterday's discussion about handling dam breeches, for example, drew representatives from police and fire departments as well as state, county and local agencies.

The county introduced several new preparedness efforts this week.

The Community Notification System enables authorities to notify every resident and business in the county within hours. The system, which is being tested, is expected to deliver nearly 100,000 recorded phone messages.

In addition, the activation of the county Medical Reserve Corps Unit was announced yesterday. The corps is seeking volunteers - health professionals and ordinary citizens - who will be called upon to aid the public health infrastructure in case of an emergency.

"We're at particular risk in the region with respect to how close we are to the nation's capital," said Richard Krieg, the network chairman. "With a severe disaster or major terrorist event, we may find ourselves in a situation where the Howard County General Hospital could reach capacity." In such a situation, the corps could help those who need routine care, he said.

Also this week, Ready Eddie, a readiness-awareness mascot, made his first appearance. About 25 people attended a "neighbor-to-neighbor" public workshop, intended to find and train neighborhood leaders.

The activities continue today with the 50+ Expo, an annual outreach to seniors, the launch of a safety campaign at Howard Community College and the unveiling of an information kiosk at Glenwood library. A volunteer training session takes place tomorrow.

Though this week's events have been in the works for months, the recent hurricanes helped shape county plans.

"People saw firsthand how lives can be changed in an instant and how important it is to be prepared," said county spokeswoman Kathy Sloan-Beard.

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