By Bill Boyd
On June 10, 1999, I was a fire captain/paramedic and the Fire Department public information officer. As I watched the mile and a half long smoke column and flame billow over 30,000 feet into the brilliant sky, I realized that not only were we experiencing an unprecedented disaster for the city, but as a community we would never be the same. Our sense of security had literally been blown away. How could something like this happen here?
Regardless of why, public safety and public works crews performed heroic acts in rescuing people from harm’s way, fighting the fires and keeping the city’s damaged water system clean and intact. Other county public safety agencies raced to the scene to assist, along with state and federal agencies. An unprecedented (for us) unified incident command system was quickly formed, and this collaboration and shared expertise resulted in one of the smoothest unified command operations that the Environmental Protection Agency had been involved with at that time.
As public safety professionals and a city, we learned several key lessons that day and subsequent days, including:
- We do not have the resources to immediately address all of the issues related to a disaster of this magnitude. Residents need to personally prepare to take care of themselves and their neighbors for at least three days.
- Citizens want fast and continuous information about what is happening and what we are doing to take care of the problem. This need has grown exponentially with continued growth of the Internet and related communications devices and services.
- All city departments operations were impacted, and were used in various ways to respond and recover.
- The city emergency operations plan was obsolete and incomplete.
- Agencies worked together seamlessly, without ego and turf issues, in assisting our community. The incident command system worked well, helping ensure public infrastructure remained intact.
- The potential danger of underground utilities must be respected and considered before doing anything that may compromise them. This reinforces the need to “Call before you dig!”
Since this tragic day, the city has taken aggressive steps to take action based on the lessons learned. We now have a comprehensive emergency operations plan, and an Office of Emergency Management jointly staffed by fire and police officers. All city employees are trained in emergency incident management techniques. We have new communication tools and pathways to provide information in as many ways as possible to the media and the public.
In what we consider to be a “capstone” of our preparedness efforts, more than 70 agency representatives, including city and county government elected officials, school administrators, the Chamber of Commerce, the Health Department, Saint Joseph Hospital, public safety and public works, state and federal officials and a host of others flew back to Maryland to participate in a week-long disaster training event hosted and paid for by FEMA. We effectively managed a simulated large scale earthquake event, created specifically for Bellingham and Whatcom County. This invaluable experience not only demonstrated that we have made much progress in improving our emergency management capabilities since June 10; it demonstrated our competency to effectively respond to the next catastrophic event. This is something the community should be proud of, and is one of the positive legacies of that day.