Public safety officials learned lessons from Oso catastrophe

OSO — Public safety officials have spent the past year studying lessons from the catastrophe in Oso to prepare for the next disaster.

They’re building skill sets for professionals — police, firefighters and emergency managers. They’re also looking to prepare regular people who might some day rush to help, as neighbors from Oso and Darrington did after the slide hit their community.

Efforts also are underway to make it easier to send emergency workers to far-flung parts of the state, what one official called a “plug-and-play” system. That would help pool resources after landslides, earthquakes, floods and wildfires.

The Oso mudslide was the deadliest natural disaster in the country last year. There was a lot to learn.

“Through this tragedy, there is the narrowest window of opportunity to pursue and execute real, substantive changes in the state and nationally,” said John Pennington, Snohomish County’s emergency management director.

Sheriff Ty Trenary said the slide forever changed how he views emergency response. Seeing neighbors and family members of victims toil alongside first responders was a revelation.

“You don’t worry about whether somebody’s got a uniform on or not; you take the help and you go forward,” he said last spring.

Since then, the sheriff has been working to strengthen three areas. The first involves volunteers.

Citizens academies

Most communities don’t have the cadre of loggers and heavy equipment operators found in the Stillaguamish Valley, but there are other ways for people to help.

The sheriff’s office hopes to work with the county’s Emergency Management Department to offer courses in basic disaster-response skills, including simple firefighting, light search-and-rescue and medical assistance. Those classes are known by the acronym CERT — Community Emergency Response Training. Local fire departments offer them as well.

On a related note, the sheriff’s office has continued to host citizen’s academies to teach people more about police work. Those classes began well before the slide. Two academies are now underway in north and south county.

A second focus for the sheriff’s office is finding a better way to incorporate outside incident management teams, which are comprised of professionals trained for various kinds of hazards. During the slide, the county hired the Northwest Incident Management Team to help oversee search-and-rescue operations.

“They don’t take over, but they manage for you,” Trenary said.

Agency cooperation

A third focus for the Sheriff’s Office has been stepping up joint exercises with firefighters. The mudslide reinforced the importance of police and fire agencies working together in large-scale emergencies.

“That was propelled by Oso,” the sheriff said.

The slide left no time to prepare when it crashed down at 10:37 a.m. on March 22, 2014. The slope failed in two stages over the course of about a minute, sending an avalanche of debris cascading over the Steelhead Haven neighborhood at about 60 mph. The slide temporarily dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish River, creating a 2.5-mile-long lake to the east.

When it came time to respond, many things went well. Everyone who could have been saved was pulled from the mud in the first few hours of the first day, although that wasn’t clear at the time.

And the bodies of all 43 victims ultimately were recovered in a search that stretched for four months.

The effort drew in more than 1,000 workers and volunteers, none of whom suffered serious physical injury.

Federal, tribal, state and various local governments all joined the response. So did private and military helicopter crews.

Over 37 days, people from 117 different agencies cycled through the county’s emergency management offices. That created confusion.

“Every agency used different systems for ordering resources from the state,” Pennington said.

The emergency management director said he has pushed his colleagues to adopt uniform procedures when asking the state for generators, trained personnel and other disaster-related needs.

Robert Ezelle, director of the state Military Department’s Emergency Management Division, shares that goal. The need for change was driven home by the mudslide, as well as by the largest wildfire in the state’s history, which devastated Okanogan County’s Methow Valley over the summer.

Ideally, emergency management outfits throughout the state should have a more “plug-and-play type of system,” Ezelle said.

The change should help local agencies contribute when they send personnel elsewhere in the state.

“We do really have an opportunity to seize hold of the tremendous energy that’s been generated,” Ezelle said.

The state also has worked to incorporate private industry into disaster responses, he said. Recent examples include a cellphone company putting up mobile towers so that people would have phone service after the Methow Valley wildfires. Retailer Home Depot helped cleanup efforts in Aberdeen and Hoquiam after serious flooding in January.

The Legislature has been working to change a state law that complicated response to the mudslide. If it passes, firefighting resources could be mobilized statewide and deployed to non-fire disasters such as landslides, earthquakes, floods and outbreaks of contagious disease. It also spells out that fire departments, fire districts and regional fire protection authorities that respond can be reimbursed for expenses they incur.

The existing law forced the state to turn down a request to mobilize resources for the Oso slide.

Amending the mobilization law was one of the top recommendations from the commission appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee and County Executive John Lovick to study the disaster.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recognizes that a major earthquake in Washington likely would unleash widespread devastation requiring people to pitch in and to use their heads, as happened at Oso.

“Earthquakes cause many other types of disasters,” said Ken Murphy, the regional FEMA administrator for this area. Toppled buildings and crumpled roadways could be compounded by landslides and flooding.

In Oso, searchers learned to apply both science and local first-hand knowledge of the terrain to search through the deep mix of mud and water the slide left behind.

“It was really good to have that good search pattern and science so we could make better use of everybody’s time,” Murphy said. Searchers “had to work very closely with the local community and (victims’) family and bring in some good, strong science to figure out where the homes and the missing people, at the time, could be located.”

Building on the cooperation in Oso will benefit the response to future disasters.

“We really have to do this with a team, as everybody,” Murphy said. “We’re just part of that team.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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