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Whatcom County making communications upgrades in preparation for ‘the really big one’

Lessons learned from Cascadia Rising disaster drill

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws talks about some of the lessons learned from the Cascadia Rising disaster drill on Wednesday, June 8.
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Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws talks about some of the lessons learned from the Cascadia Rising disaster drill on Wednesday, June 8.

Whatcom County emergency communications systems will be far more effective in the event of a large-scale earthquake than they were a year ago, county officials said.

This week marks one year after a massive region-wide drill for a 9.0-magnitude earthquake that could kill 14,000 people in Washington and Oregon. Scientists say the quake, dubbed “the really big one” in a 2015 New Yorker magazine article, is imminent, but the question is when it will occur.

Last year’s drills in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, which were known collectively as Cascadia Rising, were the first to test the region’s resilience to such a disaster. Whatcom County’s drills, which ran through June 7-8, largely focused on the agencies’ ability to communicate seamlessly while responding to a quake.

Compared to a year ago, Whatcom County is quite a bit more prepared ... and those efforts are continual and ongoing.

John Gargett, deputy director of emergency management for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office

“The ability to coordinate response activity helps ensure that when we are having an emergency, we’re able to get the right resources to the right location and that there’s not a duplication of effort,” said John Gargett, deputy director of emergency management for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

Officials determined right away that the county’s communications system had its gaps. While county agencies were able to relay information between one another, getting in touch with federal agencies, they said, was an issue.

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Western Washington University staff take part in a disaster drill at the school, June 7, 2016. The drill was part of the Cascadia Rising statewide disaster drill that started Tuesday morning. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

In the last year, officials have taken steps to fill those gaps, Gargett said. That includes the formation of a group with members from county, state and federal agencies that meets quarterly to discuss communications abilities. Since then, federal agencies with posts in Whatcom County have upgraded their communications equipment with frequencies the county agencies use, Gargett said.

“So we’re literally on the ground improving those capabilities,” he added.

A rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of Washington causes a massive earthquake on Vashon Island at 8 a.m. Tuesday June 7, 2016 - part of the Cascadia Rising emergency drill being held this week. A National Guard unit lands on t

Beyond communication drills, the county has a “host” of other exercises planned this year, Gargett said, including a mass-casualty drill at the airport on Sept. 12, which will involve transporting simulated patients to St. Joseph hospital. Another drill in November will simulate the eruption of Mount Baker.

“We’re focusing on mass-casualty incidents with the idea that all mass-casualty incidents are treated the same regardless of where they are,” Gargett said.

Whatcom County’s issues following last year’s drills were not isolated. Cascadia Rising helped state officials realize their response plan for a large-scale quake was “grossly inadequate,” according to a Seattle Times report. The state has since began telling residents to plan to survive on their own for up to two weeks, up from the original recommendation of three days.

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Vehicles and Washington National Guard troops land at Jensen Point on Vashon Island during the Cascadia Rising exercise in June 2016. Ellen M. Banner TNS

“I don’t think a community at any time can be fully prepared for an event like a Cascadia-type earthquake – you don’t know everything that will happen,” Gargett said. “What I do know is compared to a year ago, Whatcom County is quite a bit more prepared ... and those efforts are continual and ongoing.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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