The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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May 4, 2013

On disaster’s doorstep: Area’s history aids response to new crises

JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown’s three major floods in 1889, 1936 and 1977 helped to refine the nation’s emergency warning system and flood control initiatives.

But local emergency management experts say the lessons have continued, with new insights from events such as tornadoes that ripped through Salisbury on May 31, 1998; the Flight 93 crash on Sept. 11, 2001; and the Quecreek Mine rescue in July 2002.

Each of those events proved the value of improved communication, regional cooperation and ongoing training programs, said Richard Lohr, Somerset County emergency management director.

“During the tornadoes, everybody worked together,” Lohr said. “Everybody came together well.

“When we were looking back over it, one of the challenges was: If we had to do this again, I hope we could do this just as well.”

Little did he know that he would have two more chances to find out in the next four years.

“We have learned to work with different agencies,” Lohr said.

Despite its history of major floods, Cambria County has seen few major incidents since the 1977 flood, Executive Director Ron Springer said at the county emergency management office.

But the quiet decades present another challenge, he said.

“We have escaped the brunt of a lot of potential storm issues,” Springer said. “People here have a tendency to disregard or not really give it consideration.”

But complacency can kill, he warned.

“The major concern we have is getting more people to understand when a warning is issued, the (National) Weather Service has seen the need to tell people there is a building potential or it is already happening,” Springer said.

“There is a real potential for severe weather that can affect their safety.”

Worse yet, failure to heed warnings can endanger emergency responders and divert resources from those who are not able to evacuate or protect themselves, Springer said.

Those in charge of protecting the public are not immune from complacency, Lohr said.

Every county has an emergency operations plan identifying resources, including fire companies, ambulance services, hospitals, air transport, utilities, government agencies and others. The plans outline response, identify the lead agency and provide for as many scenarios as possible.

“The county has an up-to-date plan,” Lohr said. “All municipalities have emergency operations plans. One of the challenges is to keep after them to keep their plans up to date.”

Having the plan and training for response are important steps in preparing for a situation, Lohr said, warning that every emergency is unique.

“You build from the plan,” he said. “You are not going to have everything down pat. You do what you can and you pool your resources.”

As Flight 93 and Quecreek proved, emergency management is not limited to weather events. In fact, today’s emergency management program started more than half a century ago as the Cold War’s Civil Defense initiatives, Springer said.

As the threat of nuclear war ebbed, the program expanded into response to weather emergencies and other natural disasters.

Since the 1990s, terrorism has become a new focus, along with utility emergencies and school violence.

“We took on a greater role – anything and everything that is a threat to public safety and health,” Springer said.

In the months following the Sept. 11 attacks, western Pennsylvania was tapped to develop a model for a multifaceted counterterrorism training and response program.

Region 13 Counter-Terrorism and All Hazards Task Force is named for the 13 counties participating, with Cambria and Somerset among them. The collaboration extends from Meyersdale to Sharon, Mercer County, providing local responders with an arsenal of support, Springer and Lohr said.

“All of the counties have gotten millions and millions (of dollars) in equipment,” Lohr said. “That is one of the advantages.

“It has given us the ability to take regional resources, combine them and provide a coordinated and enhanced ability to respond.”

Pooling resources is saving money and improving training through joint exercises, he said.

Region 13 not only pulls in every fire company and ambulance service, it has enlisted the hospitals, said Storm Nagle, pre-hospital operations manager for Conemaugh Health System.

The first step the hospitals took was to standardize equipment and cross-train key personnel, Nagle said.

“We made a DVD for training,” she said. “If I got called to Somerset Hospital, I’d know where to go.”

Complacency is also a concern for the hospitals, Nagle said.

“Post-911, people were very informed,” she said. “That went by the wayside. The community needs to know that we have health care systems working very closely together. We are constantly preparing and training.”

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