The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Earthquake drill tests Seward response

 

Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

John Pfeifer of Kenai and Sewardite Craig Williamson operate a shortwave radio in the city medical building down the hall from the Providence Alaska emergency room. Kenai Peninsula ham operators installed shortwave equipment throughout the borough about 3 years ago.

A statewide test of emergency and disaster response capability on March 27 performed one of its objectives admirably. According to local controller Dave Squires and key participant Sue McClure it pointed up the deficiencies in local and regional communications, planning and resources. The simulation, dubbed Exercise Alaska Shield, along with a concurrent Alaska National Guard drill called Vigilant Guard-Alaska, had been in the works for months.

In the lead up to the heavily promoted exercise, the City of Seward opted for minimal involvement. Few throughout the community were engaged in any significant sense with the exception of first responders, primarily the Seward Fire Department, city department heads and a few key community members with special skills. The U.S. Forest Service and Kenai Fjords National Park offices independently conducted in-house exercises and reviews.

Local ham operators Sue McClure, a Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member, and Craig Williamson teamed up with Kenai Airport tower manager John Pfeifer, who travelled to Seward to participate in testing shortwave equipment installed at the city's hospital building. About three years ago the Kenai Peninsula's Moose Horn Amateur Radio Club installed the radios and antennas in the Homer, Seward and Soldotna hospitals as well as at the borough emergency operations building in Soldotna.

The details of the drill were shrouded in secrecy as events unfolded, but according to the contrived conditions of the unfolding disaster, all communications were interrupted. As was actually the case during the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, the only option for long distance contact available under that scenario were the shortwave radios.

Ham operators from all over Southcentral Alaska checked in and by 1 p.m. Homer was the last site to make contact. Coordination for the shortwave exercise was assigned to Wasilla, which presumably survived the worst of a mock earthquake with a magnitude of 9.2 centered at Jonah Bay in Prince William Sound.

Shortcomings in either the execution of the drill or in general started to be evidenced as the Seward tsunami warning sirens began sounding after 10:30 a.m., about 20 minutes after the 10:10 a.m. quake. The Homer tsunami sirens failed to sound. Phone numbers were missing, preventing exercise coordinators in Anchorage from calling the Seward Fire Department. Calls which, according to the exercise rules, were technically cheating as all land and cellular phones were dead.

With City Manager Jim Hunt trapped in the bathroom as city hall crumbled around him and others in the hierarchy in similarly dire straits, Seward Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Rob Mathis became the ranking city official for the purposes of the simulation. Which put him right in the mouth of the cannon, as retired fire chief and City Councilor Dave Squires dealt the Seward area blow after blow from the bottom of a deck of 3 by 5 cards.

Squires, who stayed up late composing so-called "inputs" to the disaster, spent much of the day unleashing the predictable and unpredictable consequences of earthquake and tsunami upon city departments. A whistling from a large propane tank became an input that demanded response from Mathis and the few firefighters who showed up to respond to the overall calamity.

Squires grilled SVFD Lieutenant Austin Chapman, one of the few available personnel, on what use he would make of mobile units, how his priorities would be established, where he would respond to, and what commitment there would be to the sighting or reports of trapped victims. Squires said the intention was to get responders thinking inside the terms of the disaster, to probe their training and to provoke their judgment.

Up at the hospital, Squires attended as Sue McClure received a radio call from Seward Police dispatch, requesting a relay of emergency information to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Emergency Operations Center in Soldotna. That was after the radio was reprogrammed to the correct frequency for the exercise. McClure had to stand at the doorway, or outside the building, to make sense of the dispatcher as the building blocked most of the incoming signal.

The dispatch came in so fast, that it had to be repeated several times for accuracy. Finally, Squires suggested that the ham operators request a runner to bring up a written transcript from the fire station. Later that afternoon the ham operators successfully tested sending digital text back and forth on the shortwave, which would circumvent similar difficulties in understanding long distance radio calls.

Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

SFD's Mathis gets a new card requiring decisive action along with minimal interpretation from disaster master Squires. These "inputs" to the response drill kept Mathis and crew preoccupied into the afternoon.

In response to a question at the previous March 24 city council meeting from Mayor Jean Bardarson concerning the exercise, City Manager Hunt said the city would be scaling back, or not scaling up, its participation. According to Hunt, city administration is looking to conduct a more comprehensive community exercise this summer, after more work can be put into a meaningful test.

With recent personal and city business related entanglements involving key city officials, the preoccupation of city staff in earthquake commemoration activities, and the transition of the city's Emergency Operations Center to a new location in the city annex building, administration made the call to sidestep an inconvenient disaster. Regardless, Hunt also said that experience has taught him that the pool of resources, especially in human terms, is pretty shallow.

With the demands of a real disaster, there's not much relief for those in the loop. And that's if everybody on the list shows up.

 

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