MEMA tests state’s emergency communications

Posted Oct. 30, 2009, at 9:34 p.m.

ALFRED, Maine — Sanford police reported a car had crashed into a house, and 15 dogs were on the loose. Freezing rain in Augusta was causing drivers to crash into ditches. The Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department was requesting blockades for road closings. Central Maine Power was reporting 135,000 homes without power across the state. The governor declared a state of emergency.

This is a test. This is only a test.

From 8 a.m. Thursday to 8 a.m. Friday, the Maine Emergency Management Agency simulated a slew of emergencies in a test of the statewide emergency communications network.

MEMA, a bureau of the state Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, is in charge of coordinating relief services during statewide emergencies.

The Maine Statewide Functional Exercise, as it is formally called, was conducted by CRA Inc., a Virginia-based firm that tests the readiness of state, federal and local agencies by simulating terrorist attacks, pandemic flu outbreaks and natural disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency contracted the company to run the test in Maine.

Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for MEMA, said this week’s exercise was the first they have run in five years.

“We obviously test every day. We work at every part of the system,” she said. “The idea of really doing it all at once, painting a stressful scenario so that we really would have to use all of these avenues, is something we have wanted to do for some time.”

At 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Waldo County EMA Director Dale Rowley reported that the 18 people working at the Emergency Operations Center in Belfast had yet to be hit with any major emergencies. He was prepared for the worst.

“I’m not actually leaving, I’m sleeping in the office,” he said.

Eight hours later, Waldo County had been hit hard.

“We’re being wiped out here,” Rowley said, fatigue evident in his voice. “We’ve been severely hampered in our communications. There are no phones in the county, so no one can call 911. We’ve lost our regular public safety [communications], too. We’re very limited in our ability to communicate with the state EOC.”

The tests involved shutting down essential communications networks such as phones, Internet and radio. Ham radio operators provided pivotal roles; at some points during the exercise, ham was the only form of communication between county agencies.

“We are using ham as best we can,” said Rowley. The Waldo County EMA works closely with area ham operator groups. This past June, they lent a communications trailer to the Waldo County Amateur Relay Radio Association for a daylong exercise that tested the hams’ ability to stay connected during power outages.

In the end, the exercise went well, Rowley said.

“Actually I think we’ve done pretty good here,” he said. “We had some problems with backup power and phasing so we were running extension cords all over the place.”

They also had problems with a radio tower on Aborn Hill in Knox. Rowley said they are in the process of building a new tower in that area.

In Alfred, the York County EOC was buzzing with activity as the staff of 15 — most of them retirees volunteering their time — took calls and manned the radios. A flat-screen TV on the wall displayed information from the WEB-EOC, the computer network connecting county agencies.

The National Weather Service in Caribou called in fictional weather updates. Volunteer Pam Tourangeau of Saco, a volunteer “log scribe,” wrote down incoming data on two large dry-erase boards.

“These people here are like a family. My ideal of teamwork is here,” she said. “When it comes to dealing with events and disasters, it’s imperative that there be communication across the board.”

The training exercises mimicked emergencies MEMA dealt with in the past. The Ice Storm of 1998 and the Patriot’s Day storm of 2007 saw widespread power outages and road closings. The network of county EOCs served as regional hubs for relief efforts. In those emergencies, representatives from the Department of Transportation, the National Guard, state police and utility companies all worked with EMAs to set up shelters, block off dangerous roads and get power back on line.

“This exercise brought back a lot of those memories,” said Miller. “It was a very good reminder of what reality can be.”

Sagadahoc and Penobscot were the only counties that did not participate in the exercise.

Tom Robertson, director of the Penobscot County EMA, said there are only two people on his staff, and they were busy administering H1N1 vaccinations at area schools.

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