By SALLIE JAMES Special to South Florida Times
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – In anticipation of Hurricane Season 2019, which begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30, Broward County officials conducted a May 9 exercise centered around “Hurricane Smith” – a fictitious storm that made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane in Tampa Bay on May 6.
Under the exercise narrative, the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated at 8 a.m. on May 9 due to heavy rain and high winds that caused widespread flooding and damage to the South Florida region.
The storm spawned several tornados, caused a breach in the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee, and required the opening of several shelters. Emergency responders, which include the Florida Department of Health (DOH), had to figure out what to do, when to do it and how to get it done.
For example, the DOH is responsible for medical management and staffing the county’s special needs shelters and coordinating the delivery of medical care in an emergency. During an emergency, the DOH works side by side with first responders such as police, fire rescue and hospitals, to coordinate resources such as ambulances, hospital beds and other medical resources and services.
Although every scenario associated with the mock “Hurricane Smith” was fictitious, more than 200 emergency responders had to think on their feet during the four-hour drill that included an unplanned computer glitch. It affected the ability to transmit electronic messages and forced employees from 25 agencies to revert to the use of paper messages and talk face-to-face to arrange services and find solutions to help people in need.
“We are health and medical and so anytime there is an incident in the county that could overburden the healthcare system, we get involved,” said Terri Sudden, director of Public Health Preparedness for the DOH in Broward County. “If there were a train derailment with multiple injuries, a plane crash or bad accident on I-95 with numerous fatalities, we would respond.”
Tracy Jackson, director of the county’s Emergency Management Division, said the exercise allowed participants to practice responses and evaluate them with no adverse consequences.
“We get the opportunity without the stress of a real incident to practice the skills we need,” Jackson said at the end of the exercise. “It gives us the chance to troubleshoot things that work and things that don’t work as well. It also gives us a chance to get input from our partners.”
Jackson opened the exercise by emphasizing the importance of teamwork. “We can’t over-emphasize how important it is for us to be unified,” Jackson said. “More than 1.9 million people outside this room are depending on the decisions you are going to make.”
He told participants they would have to make decisions even though they might not have enough information and warned there would be no guarantee of success. He urged them to soldier on. “Our confidence is high in you and in us,” Jackson said.
Participants from across the county sat in chairs at long tables equipped with phones and computers. Drill monitors walked the room, wearing vests that bore names such as “evaluator” (they record how projects were accomplished) and “controller” (they provided “injects” or scenarios for the exercise and made sure it maintained its pace).
Participants were instructed to do their best to resolve whatever problems they were given. They made phone-calls, consulted with representatives from other cities and agencies and figured out solutions for complicated problems.
DOH employee James Turchetta, Cities Readiness coordinator, served as a controller during the exercise and kept his team busy with an array of jarring incidents, requiring team members to be resourceful and find answers. “I think overall it went great,” Turchetta said.
Jackson’s assessment was similar. “We are happy with the information we gained, the observations we made and the opportunity to improve,” he said.
Sallie James is with the Florida Department of Health in Broward County. For more information on how to better prepare for emergencies, visit broward.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/emergency-preparedness-and-response/personal