What Whatcom needs to fix before ‘big one’ hits

If a massive, 9.0-magnitude quake hit Whatcom County today, emergency responders might not be able to communicate effectively.

That’s what officials said they learned after a two-day exercise that simulated such a disaster.

Differing radio systems and frequencies meant that while the county sheriff’s office and, say, fire departments, can talk to each other, they can’t talk with the Department of Homeland Security or other agencies that use a more secure radio system.

“Obviously we need to have the hardware to be able to contact back and forth, but then along with that we also need ... the policies and procedures so that there’s more of a push of information from the (Whatcom Unified Emergency Coordination Center) out to those of us that need it so that we can answer questions on behalf of the community when we’re asked,” County Executive Jack Louws said Wednesday, June 9, during a media briefing on the results.

The briefing came near the end of a series of drills around the county known as Cascadia Rising, a region-wide simulation of a massive earthquake, known unofficially as “the really big one.” Emergency planners throughout the Pacific Northwest, both public and private, participated in the drills, simulating the effects of such a quake.

In the Sound region, members of the Washington National Guard used pontoon boats to transport vehicles and supplies to Vashon Island. Members of the Oregon National Guard flew Gov. Kate Brown over parts of the state in a helicopter to survey simulated damage.

But rather than practicing a widespread physical response to mass casualties or simulating supply drops, Whatcom County emergency planners spent most of the two days either running through radio-communication scenarios or assessing fake damage to area buildings. They tested communications in response to hundreds of scenarios, including the collapse of almost every bridge over the Nooksack River.

Other agencies in Washington, Oregon and Idaho will continue the drill through Friday, but most of the Whatcom efforts wrapped up Wednesday. The National Guard on Thursday will land a helicopter in Point Roberts to simulate the delivery of emergency medical supplies.

At the Wednesday briefing, officials explained that communication was the focus of the drill — which was why so much time was spent on the radios.

“When you design an exercise, one of the things you want to do is have a limited number of objectives,” said John Gargett, deputy director of emergency management with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. “Our objectives were very restricted to specifically how do we communicate, how do we actually run the (emergency coordination) center itself inside with the people and teams that we have, and then third, how do we communicate and interact with people in the field.”

It was still too early to identify all the communication problems that need to be addressed, Gargett said at the briefing. But cross-communication with agencies on other systems was one challenge that needed attention, he said.

Other issues came with easier solutions. The county’s emergency coordination center, Louws said, provides poor cellphone reception for certain service networks. The county, Louws said, would work with the necessary service providers to see about having an antenna or booster installed in or near the building.

And there will be more opportunities to practice mass-casualty exercises, which the county has had in the past, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said.

“You need a combination of both types of exercises,” Elfo said, referring to both mass-casualty and communications drills. “But I think this was multiple scenes and multiple different locations and how we coordinate those and how we get the resources to where they’re most needed — that was the purpose of this exercise.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

Are you prepared?

Visit Whatcom Unified Emergency Management’s website, whatcomready.org, to find out what you need to be ready in the event of a major natural disaster.

On that site you also can find a longer report following the series of local Cascadia Rising drills.