Whatcom health worker raced to rescue when Skagit bridge collapsed

Marcus Deyerin is part of Northwest network of disaster experts

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 15, 2013 

Marcus Deyerin knows disasters.

That's his job, as an emergency response specialist for the Whatcom County Health Department.

But he wasn't thinking dire thoughts the evening of May 23. He was sitting in his car while his 9-year-old son attended a gymnastics class in Burlington. Then he heard a siren.

"Your antennae start to prick up," Deyerin said. "By the time I heard the third or fourth siren, I figured something big was happening."

Big, indeed. The nearby Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River had just collapsed, severing all four lanes of the freeway and dumping vehicles and people into the chilly river. When Deyerin learned about the collapse on his smartphone, he took his son out of the class and drove to the north end of the bridge, where he saw about a dozen emergency responders watching from shore.

"Everybody was looking into the water like ... well ... 'What do we do?'" he said.

Deyerin saw a Mount Vernon fire official he knows and volunteered to become a public information officer at the scene. That's how Deyerin became a quotable source for breaking news stories about the collapse.

Deyerin was being more than a good Samaritan when he offered to help. Besides working for the Health Department, he's one of about 60 members of the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team.

Team members are emergency response experts in five counties - Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, Island and San Juan - who agree to help when a major disaster strikes in those counties. They sometimes go elsewhere, such as Eastern Washington during wildfire season.

The 60 members are split into two groups that rotate week-by-week being on-call. Deyerin's group was in line to help when the bridge crumbled.

At Skagit County's request, 14 team members were sent to the scene. Six went home soon after the motorists were plucked from the river. The other eight, including Deyerin, stayed to help for nearly 24 hours.

"I knew that our team was going to be activated," Deyerin said. "I knew I was in a position to assist the process."

INDEPENDENT PATH

Having agencies coordinate to cope with disasters isn't a new idea. But problems can arise from political infighting and unreliable funding, said Tod Gates, interim fire chief in Lynnwood and a founding member of the Northwest team.

That's why organizers took a different approach before the team became active in 2007, Gates said. Rather than be part of an existing agency, the team is a separate municipal cooperation. Member groups - such as cities, counties and fire districts - pay an annual fee set at 5 cents per capita. That provides stable funding for the team's budget of $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

The team can apply for grants and buy its own equipment. Because it responds to all hazards, its nine board members reflect a mix of expertise.

The arrangement makes the team unique in the state, and possibly the nation, Gates said.

"We think it's the recipe for success," he said.

At the scene of a disaster, team members support local responders and help them plan for what's next.

"What we are good at is, 'How are you going to do your job 12 hours from now? 24 hours from now?'" Deyerin said.

Dues-paying members, including Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham, receive free help from the team for up to 72 hours if a disaster happens on their home turf. Many incidents are under control within three days; when problems last longer, state and federal help is often available.

Jurisdictions that aren't members can obtain help from the team, but it costs about $20,000 a day.

Member groups must reapply every year to join the team, to ensure their support remains strong.

"We don't want names on a page," Gates said. "We need people that are committed and continuously trained."

Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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