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Full-scale mock disaster event in Beloit, Wisconsin

The disaster event that no one wants but everyone fears

Bruce Slagoski
Terrace Operations Supervisor
City of Beloit, Wisconsin
Member, Emergency Management Committee, APWA Wisconsin Chapter

Many lives have been affected by the heartbreaking tragedies on school campuses across our nation. These senseless random acts of violence have brought a feeling of helplessness and fear to many. In light of these horrific instances the City of Beloit, Beloit College and Wisconsin Emergency Management met on December 15, 2006 to proactively prepare for such an event. We had at least one meeting per month to prepare for a mock disaster dealing with these unfortunate acts of terrorism.

On October 24, 2007 the City of Beloit, Beloit College and Wisconsin Emergency Management had our full-scale mock disaster. Everyone remembers the Virginia Tech University massacre on April 16, 2007. When we planned our event little did we know that it was going to really happen. We had been developing this program for months before this and in fact had one tabletop exercise one month to the day before the tragic incident in Virginia. This was the first full-scale mock event in the United States done at a college when the students were in attendance.

Our design team consisted of representatives from:

  • Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM), Dan Wenborne (Facilitator), Bob Klinger and Jerry Haberl
  • Rock County Emergency Management, Shirley Connors, Shannon Ladwig and Deborah Shaw
  • Beloit Fire Department, Bruce Hedrington
  • Beloit Police Department, Bill Tyler
  • City of Beloit Risk Manager, Mike Ciaramita
  • Beloit College, John Nicholas
  • Beloit Hospital, Barb Kuska
  • Rock County 911 Dispatch Center, Kathy Sukus
  • Beloit Department of Public Works, Bruce Slagoski
The debris pile created by the Public Works Department on the Beloit College campus (photo courtesy of the City of Beloit)

The normal role in public works is to come in and clean up after a natural or man-made disaster and partner with other disciplines during the event. This is the first time we were requested to create a disaster. Our role was to secure the area for all of the emergency responders where the event was going to take place and then assist in making the collapsed areas.

So you might ask yourself, how did we do this? The Friday before the event we put out No-Parking signs for the event area to give us a clear work site for the following Monday. We worked with Lt. Chris Scott from the Rockford Fire Department who is on the task force team for the Illinois Technical Rescue Team (TRT) to come and make the collapsed sites. We delivered the concrete pipe ranging from two feet to four feet in diameter.

For months we had collected mattresses, end tables, couches and chairs that were put out for weekly trash collection for this event. A Dodge Caravan was brought in that we crushed. They brought in a fifth-wheel trailer and it was our job to destroy the trailer and place it on the pile. We worked with the TRT for two days setting up the site and Lt. Chris Scott stated, "Without the help of Public Works the event would not have been as realistic as it was."

On the actual day of the event Public Works personnel secured the area so that no one could enter except the responders. We installed snow fence, barricaded streets for a two-block area and barricaded a three-block area for staging. We delivered golf carts and gators for the evaluators and dignitaries to utilize so they could view the event. We stayed onsite for the entire event for any unforeseen issues that would come up, which they did; like any event as it unfolds things come up. We had police personnel walking over snow fence that we had to put back up and citizens were finding little holes in our perimeter that we had to close. We put more barricades out as the event grew.

After all of the explosions rocked the City of Beloit, trapped and injured college students were rescued and transported to the hospital, and the terrorist was taken into custody and the hostages were released, it took only approximately three hours to conclude the exercise. Everyone went home but Public Works. Now our work began again, cleaning up the event debris. The unrecognizable fifth-wheel trailer was in two different sites. Couches, tables and mattresses were everywhere. Meanwhile, the media was saying that the event was over and everything was back to normal. Public Works worked for the next two days cleaning up all of the debris.

The College Vice President commented, "I could not believe how well our Public Works crews restored the area to the way it was before the event." He sent the following e-mail:

Bruce:

Now that the smoke has cleared so to speak, I want to personally thank you and the rest of your Public Works team for the fantastic job you performed prior to, during, and after the Emergency Management exercise held on the Beloit College campus on Wednesday, October 24, 2007. Your crew was professional, courteous, and efficient and if there was ever a real emergency on the campus, I only hope you're involved!

Thanks again.

John Nicholas
Vice President for Administration
Emergency Management Coordinator
Beloit College

Bob Klinger and Jerry Haberl from Wisconsin Emergency Management said in their report:

The Beloit DPW was represented on the exercise design team and played an important role in the planning, conduct and evaluation of the exercise.

Public Works personnel were instrumental in the preparation of the exercise, especially in the construction of the rubble pile used to test collapsed structure evolutions. The expertise and experience they brought to the construction ensured a safe and realistic training experience.

Public Works was able to maintain essential utility services (enhancements/props) and coordination among assets and was organized efficiently according to the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The Incident Command System (ICS) was established soon after arrival and Unified Command established within an evaluated time period.

A representative of the FBI said, "This is the largest event I have ever seen and was impressed on how well it ran." Some mistakes were made but, after all, it was a disaster. We quickly recovered from our mistakes. That is why you have to practice. You have to understand each other and know everyone's capabilities.

One of the pre-exercise meetings with all of the mock disaster participants (photo courtesy of the City of Beloit)

Not surprisingly, through this exercise we found our biggest problem was with communication. It is the same comment I have heard at every event, staged or real. We must work together to find a better way of communicating with each other. The only way this will happen is if we talk to each other. Police, Fire and Public Works communicated well, but when the FBI and the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team came into the event, it took us about a half hour to gain communication.

In Beloit we have been working hard to improve communication through the use of Nextel telephones and radios. We can alert a group of Public Works, Police, SWAT or Fire responders with ease. With the assistance of Nextel we have established groups so the Incident Commander can alert any group with one click of a button. Nextel representatives helped us the day of our event to enhance our capabilities with the phones and also supplied us with extra phones to share with other responders as needed. All of this would not have happened if we did not work together as a group on our communication to recognize the shortcomings that we had. Public works must be a part of that process.

The most important thing that I learned from the exercise is that public works has to work with police and fire departments so everyone knows each other's strengths and weaknesses. They do not know all of our resources. They even have resources that can help us. Work with them, be friends with them, don't ignore them. When there is a disaster, all of you working together as a team of first responders will serve your communities in the most efficient way possible. You will save lives and restore the infrastructure much faster, allowing the citizens of your community to restore some sense of normalcy to their lives.

Bruce Slagoski can be reached at (608) 364-2929 ext. 7008 or slagoski@ci.beloit.wi.us.