By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – There are mock disasters and then there are plans that fail to launch properly.
Such was the case Monday when Exeter’s emergency management center waited for an expected 911 call to arrive setting off a five-day preparedness drill scheduled to unfold on the site of the old Ladd School.
And waited. And waited – for a call that never came.
The exercise was expected to involve as many as 1,100 participants. Those included Army and Air National Guard units from throughout New England as well as active duty personnel from the U.S. Northern Command and Coast Guard units. Also participating were other regional Active Duty Army and a Coast Guard unit rescue team from as far away as the Pacific Northwest and the RI Medical Assistance Team who would operate a field hospital.
The simulation was 18 months in the making and set up to test the readiness of emergency responders to follow plans and communicate with multiple agencies.
It was not a promising start.
In East Greenwich, National Guardsmen waited at the gate for orders to deploy; at Fire Station 4, on South County Trail in Exeter, six volunteer firefighters who had taken time off from work, waited for the order to take their two trucks on the short trip to the disaster site.
Had things gone by the book, Exeter’s assistant emergency management director,
Andrew Treat, would have taken the 911 call at 1 p.m. in the dispatch headquarters on Ted Rod Road and relayed the information to EMA director E. Stefan Coutoulakis.
The call would have reported the possible collapse of a chemical plant – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent weeks creating a corrugated metal structure with tons of rubble in front – and Engines 6 and 8 would have responded to assess the situation and take control of the scene. They would hold command until someone Treat called “higher up the food chain” arrived with the first full wave of emergency personnel.
As he prepared to field the crucial call, Treat declared himself to be “very excited and a bit nervous.” When Exeter finally jumped in at 2:45 p.m., he was calm and completely professional clearly describing the situation over the state emergency system and recording everything.
“Good boy,” said Coutoulakis as he listened to the transmission. “Keep going.”
The firefighters eventually were summoned to the scene although others had already done their job. The state command center in Cranston, apparently working from a scripted game plan indicating a 911 call was received, had already started the operation without them.
No such call was made because it would have come through Treat and been relayed to Coutoulakis who would have notified the command center via a computerized red alert.
Coutoulakis had spent hours fielding calls from angry, frustrated people. It was hard to determine what had happened. A first report said the “role players” who had been hired to play victims through a Craigslist ad offering $9 an hour had failed to show. Later, it was said that an independent military contractor had arrived two hours late, throwing off the entire schedule.
In the end it seemed to be a much simpler – and not unfamiliar – reason: Exeter had been utterly forgotten, its responders who obviously would answer a call in their own backyard, dismissed.
Reached on Tuesday evening, Coutoulakis said he’d logged 32 calls throughout the day trying to find out how communications had broken down so completely. While stopping short of saying anything negative, he confessed to being bitterly disappointed that his men had not gotten the opportunity to carry out their part in the exercise.
They, however, were putting a brave face on things in much the same manner as an Olympic track star or gymnast who, failing to qualify for the final heat or not capturing gold as expected, have been congratulating those who did.
Station 4 Deputy Chief Curt Varone described the experience as “a very realistic scenario” although “some teams got there ahead of us and had already done our job. We looked at how they were doing. We didn’t play the role we were expecting but we’re just one player in a big exercise. We got a lot out of it.”
Firefighter Joe Schindler, who also works with the West Kingston Fire Department’s hazmat unit which participated in the exercise Tuesday, said, “Today was pretty good. There was a lot to see on the military side.”
In the midst of what might have fallen into chaos, Coutoulakis never wavered from his duties.
After tweaking software originally set up solely for hazmat incidents, making it capable of covering all hazards, he was working on multiple computers and keeping an eye on hurricane-tracking information provided for the exercise by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
He had started doing his part at 11:58 p.m. Sunday, transmitting a town-wide notice reminding people of the exercise and listing emergency supplies necessary for hurricane survival. At 12:20 a.m. Monday he described the purpose of the drill; at 1:53 he invited the public to the Exeter Emergency Communications Center to watch how the system was working; at 8:12 he reported the hurricane had made landfall at 6 a.m. and was lashing the area with sustained winds of 111 mph. He advised everyone to “seek shelter.”
At 12:57 p.m. his message updated residents that the live portion of the exercise would start in an hour and to use caution when traveling near the Ladd property.
He had stayed up till 3 a.m. and a few hours later was at his post in the emergency communications center typing messages into the statewide communications system and receiving updates concerning power outages.
He continued to type updates into the statewide information system and sent his last town-wide dispatch after 9 p.m.
He also showed a reporter the impressive “pre-plan” he’d designed – he had only a month to plot a course for Exeter – that included location and exact square footage of the fake chemical plant, a list of all the dangerous chemicals that might be inside the building and their toxicity, the most direct route for the firefighters to get to the exact spot they were needed and how many feet of hose they’d need to stretch from the nearest hydrant to the building.
He used a program that cost the town nothing to create the site map because, he explained, “nobody had it prepared.”
After Monday’s rocky start, Coutoulakis said he believed things had improved during the day. Some of the real rescue personnel – not role-players – were injured and treated in the field hospital Monday and Tuesday. Early Tuesday morning, members of the media were invited to Ladd to record the wonder of it all.
In the end, Coutoulakis said he’s “really bothered” by the failure to follow the plan so Exeter could have reacted in a realistic manner.
“You can’t start a large operation without starting a small one. You have to have the basics – some type of foundation.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.