Hundreds of participants from more than 40 agencies volunteered their weekends to test the limits of their emergency service equipment and their own training at the Cape Blanco Airport north of Port Orford, said Deb Simon, the public information officer for the training.
While the various emergency service agencies train independently for disasters, it’s rare that they get to work together. The Triton32 exercise allowed them to do just that.
Pilots and flight nurses spent three days flying to outlying airports in Curry County to pick up “patients” — in this case, they were “paper patients,” not real people — transport them to the Cape Blanco Airport where their injuries were evaluated and, based on that triage, send them inland for treatment.
On the ground, local firefighters worked alongside federal military agencies. Communications towers were erected. Piles of paper in the Logistics tent were checked and double-checked for correct data. Ham radio operators in Port Orford crammed into the backs of pickups, in tents, in dens throughout the counties.
Orders went up the chain of command, from private pilots to command officers. Messages came back down. Helicopter blades chopped through the air.
Chaos slowly transformed into order. And then the fog rolled in, bringing a bit of chaos back to the scene.
The purpose of the training was to understand the different ways other agencies work so when an emergency strikes, responders know how to work with each other.
“It’s a training for us. It’s for us to (tune) our response coordination and find areas that need improvement. It’s also so we know how to play with each other,” Simon noted, of the coordination required between federal, state and local responders.”
They were on the lookout for problems — the bigger, the better.
“We wanted to fail spectacularly, so we could find the places that need to be reassessed and plan for the future,” said Simons, who is also the Coos County Emergency Management project coordinator and has worked for FEMA disaster response in the past. “We did this to find all the chinks and kinks in the armor so we can rebuild that armor and make really good things happen in the future.”
There were a few kinks to be found, she admitted Tuesday.
“We identified numerous areas that need work,” she said with a laugh, adding that communications — from getting handwritten notes to ham radio operators and then to those in the field — was the biggest challenge. “We came up with better ideas, starting from scratch — configuring stuff so it works better for everyone.”
The exercise was a year in the making — it started as an idea of Brookings firefighters Andy Stubbs and Jordan Fanning — and grew to include public and private emergency service providers from across the nation.
They included volunteers from the Oregon Disaster Medical Teams, the National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard, Cal-Ore Life Flight, the Medical Reserve Corps, Community Emergency Response Teams, Civil Air Patrol and private air support, Simon said.
The event was funded by an Oregon Health Authority grant.
“There were wonderful dynamics working out there with all the agencies involved coming together, learning together, talking together — learning what different agencies do, how they do it, what their protocol is,” Simon said. “It brought more reality to it. It was a fantastic training exercise. I’ve been involved for many, many, many years, and this was one of the best I’ve been involved in. It worked so well.”
In the world of disasters, Curry County is most prone to forest fires and earthquakes, the latter of which will eventually occur along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, about 30 miles west and parallel to the Oregon Coast. The last time it “ripped” was in 1700.
When it rips again — it could be tomorrow, or it could be another 300 years from now — scientists say it will catastrophically damage 94 percent of all transportation infrastructure along the Oregon coast, kill about half the residents and devastate the area for years to come.
With the entire West Coast in its path, and big port cities like Portland possibly in ruins, emergency responders here believe help won’t arrive to remote areas of the state for at least three weeks.
It’s a fact most coastal residents realize and prepare for, but the ramifications are impossible to predict.
“This, in and of itself, will necessitate all assistance and medical evacuation to come from outside the coastal region, conveyed largely by air- or sea-based (craft),” Simon said.
The plan is to use Cape Blanco Airport as a staging area to which injured people will be transferred from coastal areas, assessed for the severity of their injuries and transported inland for treatment.
Cape Blanco Airport served heavy aircraft and long-range bombers in World War II, and is expected to be the only airport along the coast to survive a Cascadia event, Simon said.
“It was an active WWII airbase, it rests on bedrock, is heavily fortified to accommodate heavy aircraft, and it’s out of the tsunami zone,” she said. “It’s the only airport that’s expected to be serviceable.”
Whether that airport is used in a real emergency won’t be known until that situation arises.
“It’s whatever survives the earthquake and tsunami along the coast,” Simon said. “If the Bandon or Brookings airport survives— whoo-hoo! We know the one in Gold Beach will not, but if the (others do), we’re in good shape. We’re practicing with what is feasible.”
Cape Blanco’s major shortcoming is that there is no instrument control towers for pilots.
But it has a lot of valuable attributes. It is at 214 feet elevation. A tsunami resulting from a major quake of at least 8.0 magnitude is predicted to be about 115 feet in height. There’s no saying what shape the earth itself will be in.
The Brookings airport is at 459 feet elevation, but isn’t as well-fortified as Cape Blanco, Simon said. Gold Beach’s airport is at 20 feet elevation, Crescent City’s at 61 feet and Bandon’s at 121 feet.
“It’ll shake, rattle and roll, but it’s not going to break,” Simon said. She added that since the training event, participants now have a hands-on idea how the airport will function.
“They’re familiar with access, weather patterns, that the airport is capable of handling the duties of an incident supply base,” Simon said. “It’s a place to put equipment, food, medicine — closer to folks who need it and disperse from there up and down the coast — and get critical patients to hospitals immediately. This airstrip is a very important one.”