New Castle News

May 11, 2013

Are We Ready? Disaster plan sets stage for preparedness

Nancy Lowry
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The multi-volume Lawrence County Emergency Operations Plan provides a starting point for first responders, should the unexpected happen.

“The county has an overall plan and each municipality has a plan,” explained Brian Melcer, Lawrence County public safety director, “but in the event of a disaster or emergency, the single most important thing that can help is to have a prepared public.”



A PLACE TO START

The plan identifies a chain of command and responsibilities to be followed in the event of a disaster.

“It’s our general marching orders,” Melcer said. “It gives us a place to start and is adjusted to meet specific situations.”

It outlines how the county’s emergency operations center will function in a countywide disaster and how responses will be coordinated and it outlines the county’s role in hazardous situations, including an incident at the Beaver Valley nuclear power station in Shippingport.

He said the plan is kept current and identifies training as a priority.

“We’re constantly upgrading the plan in compliance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.”



BEING PREPARED

Lawrence County has been prepared for disaster for years, said county administrator James Gagliano, who helped to develop the first local disaster plan in 1979.

“In those days it was called a civil defense plan,” he recalled, adding, “The state used our plan as a model for about two years.”

Since its inception, the plan has undergone upgrades and revisions and now contains several volumes.

“It’s a fluid, on-going document and we try to make it comprehensive,” he said. “It includes terrorism, identifies primary responders, operation centers and considers what is available.

“Are we ready for an emergency? We’ve had practices,” Gagliano said. “On those occasions everything went to plan.”



READY ON ALL LEVELS

Preparedness is needed on all levels of society, Melcer said, and must be a consideration of every community, family and business.

“If something happens, we know we can rely on each other for our needs, be they fuel for vehicles, food for workers, phone service to keep relief staff in touch,” Melcer said.

He added the Lawrence County area is fortunate in that it has not experienced disasters of the magnitude seen elsewhere in Pennsylvania or the United States, that tornadoes do not occur on a regular basis and flooding has not been a problem for several years.

“That’s good for the county, but bad for the general public, who don’t think of disaster preparedness until a disaster is imminent.”

In places such as Oklahoma’s “Tornado Alley,” or along coastlines likely to experience hurricanes or tropical storms, residents are more likely to have “go kits” packed and by the door in case of emergency, he said.

These kits include such essentials as flashlights, batteries, a radio, prescription medication, water, food, baby and pet food and changes of clothes.

“A few years ago, after the extended power outage, people bought generators and stocked up on water. If individuals can provide for their own needs, this cuts down on what we will need from fire departments and others.”

Melcer said he does not advocate going to extremes as in the “preppers” movement. He refers residents to local and state websites — www.leoc.net and ready.gov — that can provide instructions.



RELIEF RESOURCES

If disaster relief efforts require resources exceeding what the county has available, more help may be provided through the Region 13 Task Force, a trained, regional mutual aid confederation the county joined in 1998.

The contingency involves Lawrence County and 12 others, plus the city of Pittsburgh. It stretches from Mercer County to the West Virginia border and from the Ohio line to Johnstown.

County directors involved in the task force plan how they will handle emergencies and participate in practices.

Its most recent exercise was “Scarlet Harvest,” a simulated biohazard event held several years ago.

Melcer calls the regional partnership an asset.

“This gives us access to services and equipment that we could not afford on our own,” he pointed out.

Through the organization, he said, the county may call in the Allegheny County Bomb Squad if needed. Local residents provided manpower for flood relief in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey last year, and the task force had a presence G-20 conference in Pittsburgh.

Melcer said he believes there is good cooperation among all local emergency providers. An April 7 brush fire involving 106 acres in Shenango Township proved that, he said.

Plans involve evaluating the emergency operations center at the Scottish Rite Cathedral and determining if that is the best location and if space is adequate., Melcer said. Focus also will be on more training and more volunteers.

“We can provide all the training possible, but volunteer agencies from fire departments to civic clubs know that volunteers are hard to recruit and retain,” he said.

The lack of volunteers could result in greater regionalization of departments, he said. This is seen to some degree with mutual aid agreements currently in place.

But Melcer is confident.

“Are we ready for an emergency? Sure, as long as ‘we’ means everybody.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)