Training for disaster

County Incident Management Team trains for worst, hopes for best
By DeeAnna Haney | Jul 29, 2014

A train passing through downtown Canton has derailed, causing 16 rail cars to crash and spill 90 tons of pressurized chlorine gas. So far, there have been 21 fatalities and nearly 200 injuries. Everyone within a mile of town is being evacuated. The mill is closed and I-40 is at a standstill.

Though it's a highly unlikely and hypothetical scenario, these are the kinds of situations for which the Haywood County Incident Management Team must be prepared.

The imaginary disaster was all part of a week-long intensive training to test the team's ability to organize and face such an incident head-on as if it were actually happening.

Haywood County Emergency Management Director Greg Shuping and other emergency officials in the county began considering the need for an incident management team a decade ago following tunnel collapses, large landslides and flooding from hurricanes Ivan and Frances.

"What we realized was that we've got a great group that responds to these incidents and performs rescues," Shuping said. "But we weren't doing a good job being organized about it all."

In 2008 a small group of people came together to form the Haywood County Incident Management Team. Mostly made of people who already work in emergency situations in their daily jobs such as firefighters, EMS workers, nurses and police officers, the team now has 34 members.

The team's job, Shuping explained, is to respond to the scene of emergencies from fires to floods, and do the "behind the scenes" work while emergency workers can focus on doing what they do best — saving lives.

That type of work involves taking care of the logistics at an emergency which can involve bringing in needed equipment, contacting surrounding agencies with needed resources, creating maps in a search and rescue situation or even figuring out how to provide food to a group of rescue workers who have been at their tasks for hours and hours.

The team doesn't take over command of any scene — that's the job of the fire chief or police chief in charge of the situation.

"We are not here to circumvent them, we are here to supplement them," Shuping said. "If there's a fire in downtown Waynesville, what do you want the firefighters to be doing? You want as many as possible to be there fighting that fire."

The incident management team is there to take care of what the firefighters can't.

But preparing the team for emergencies of any kind takes training, and training often takes money. Because of that, large scale training only happens every couple of years, Shuping said. This year, county leaders received a $30,000 training grant from the U.S.  Department of Homeland Security.

A portion of that grant money was used to pay for last week's All Hazards Incident Management Team Course that took place at Haywood Community College. Thanks to the grant money, Shuping was able to hire "the best of the best" to spend a week training the local team and two other teams in the region.

At the beginning of the week, the teams were split into three groups and each person assumed a particular role for the week. Then, they were all instructed to react to different types of emergency situations, the chlorine gas being among the most tragic.

"This type of training allows us to organize better and to go through these scenarios so that whether it's a train crash or a storm or a health pandemic, just practicing the process makes us more capable to respond if it actually happens," said Ben Clawson, an EMS shift supervisor and member of the incident management team.

These skills aren't just reserved for emergencies, though. Having an organized plan also comes in handy for events large and small. For example, the local team was on hand as incident command for the July Fourth fireworks at Lake Junaluska and in Canton for the past two years.

"There's always an opportunity for something to happen. We always have to be prepared. Think of the Boston Marathon," Shuping said, referring to the terrorist bombings at the 2013 marathon that claimed the lives of three and injured 264 others.

"We need to think about the contingency if there is a mass casualty at a big event," he said.

Even though the incident management team is relatively young, it's already been useful in the county and in the region. Each year, local emergency resources are spent on dozens of search and rescues involving lost hikers in the mountains, which is one of the most common uses of the incident management team.

"Now, when there is a search and rescue, we immediately alert this team," Shuping said.

Once they arrive, it's the team's job to bring in equipment such as a trailer with radios, making maps for the rescue workers, organizing tools and resources and taking care of the logistics so the rescue workers can do their jobs.

During the winter, the team helped Madison County emergency workers during a search and rescue in 10-degree weather. And three years ago, the Haywood team took over the management of Asheville's Bele Cher so the Asheville Fire Department could focus on the funeral of Cpt. Jeff Bowen, who was killed in action.

Sometimes, an incident may require several team members and other times only two or three are needed at the scene. But the goal is to have a team big enough so that if disaster strikes, there are plenty of people to help.

Shuping said anyone who is interested and committed is allowed to be a part of the team as long as they are willing to take time to train. However, the county does not have funding for the incident management team. For now, all the members are volunteers. Though some are paid through their respective agency for their time on the team, the county does not pay them.

Anyone is welcome on the team, especially if they bring a useful skill set. For example, a member of the civil air patrol recently joined the team.

"The value of someone with that type of outside experience is priceless," Shuping said. "That's what makes the team work."

Those interested in joining the team may call Shuping at 456-2391.