Preparing for the worst: Emergency responders remain flexible, work together

Thursday, August 23, 2012

MARK NEWMAN  |  Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Emergency professionals in Wapello County agree they can’t train for every possible incident, yet there are steps they can take to make their response as quick and effective as possible.

“You can’t say, ‘This is exactly how it’s going to happen,’” said Josh Stevens, emergency management coordinator for Wapello County, in response to the deadly shooting attack at a Colorado movie theater.

Officials agreed it would be hard to predict a man in body armor entering a dark movie theater and starting to shoot innocent people.

But there are some things that are needed in almost every response to a large-scale emergency.

“We can say, ‘This is how we’re going to communicate. This is how we’ll get [neighboring] resources, here are 50 different ways to warn the public.’ You don’t want to be figuring that out during a disaster,” he said.

Ottumwa Fire Chief Tony Miller said in the biggest emergencies, no matter what they are, cooperation between responding agencies is essential.

Stevens said like a lot of the nation, Wapello County uses the Incident Command System. Staff there are tasked with getting the personnel in the field whatever they need. They’ve trained in how to do that if the phones are down, the power is out or the roads are impassable.

“There are a lot of resources out there for us to use,” Stevens said, and practicing for the worst-case scenario means they’ll be able to get those resources in stressful conditions.

Each agency may cover a different task.

“We do training on triage,” said Miller.

If 70 citizens were wounded, the Ottumwa Fire Department can perform first aid on the injured and separate the least-critically wounded from the most and from the deceased. Instead of ambulance drivers out giving first aid or trying to determine who needs to go to the hospital the most, OFD triage allows ambulances to begin transporting the right patients right away.

By law, he said, the OFD is not allowed to transport injured people. This means if countywide, only four ambulances were available to move 70 people, Stevens or the hospital may need to request ambulances from other agencies.

“We work well together, the regional Emergency Management coordinators. And we are required to develop our emergency plans together,” he said.

If there was a shooting at a public place, stopping the shooter could be the first priority. Lt. Mickey Hucks is the emergency response team commander for the Ottumwa Police Department. He said he was hesitant to share specific training techniques or strategies used in tactical situations.

“But how can you prepare for something like this [exact Colorado incident]? You can’t, but we do plan for the worst.”

The Ottumwa Police Department does not have a SWAT team sitting around the office waiting exclusively for reports of gunshots. But the OPD has emergency response team-trained officers spread out through the shifts.

In the case of “an active shooter” situation, “they would take the lead,” Hucks said.

But it’s not just the team that trains for active shooter situations, he added, it’s the whole department. Because modern firearms allow a gunman to shoot so many people in such a short period, Hucks said response time is critical.

That need to react quickly is also one of the reasons law enforcement officers expect each other to carry their sidearm at all times.

There may not be a way to completely stop random acts of violence, he said, but there could be a technique to reduce damage, or perhaps some red flags could be identified to allow a proactive response before an incident. But people do have to live their lives without worry of a random shooting keeping them locked up at home, Hucks said.

“We [in the law enforcement community] will worry about those things. We just keep training, and we adapt. As this situation [is examined], we’ll learn from it,” said Hucks. “Departments all across the country will learn from this.”

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