This Saturday, September 23rd, local first responders will participate in a disaster exercise at the Shelly Company Gravel Pit on Price Road in Shalersville Township. The 700-acre property will be the site of a mock-emergency scenario that assumes a tornadic event has traversed through a state park and campground during its peak season. In the scenario, local resources quickly become overwhelmed, and call on multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional response for assistance.

To that end, the Portage County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management will assist local first responders. The Portage County OHS/EM office will work in conjunction with the Portage County Local Emergency Planning Committee and Big Creek Search and Rescue on this disaster exercise, which will provide local first responders with an opportunity to assess capabilities, plans, policies and procedures in response to a disaster scenario, Ryan Shackelford, director of PC OHS/EM explained.

While area residents may notice more traffic than usual, according to Shackelford, they aren’t planning any road closures or changes in traffic flow. But higher levels of traffic will be beneficial, since the expected outcome of the exercise is to test multi-agency and public-private response to and coordination of a possible disaster incident, Shackelford explained. As a part of the day-long training exercise, between 40 – 60 participants from a variety of local agencies and organizations will simulate a variety of situations, including search and rescue, high rope rescue, water/dive rescue & recovery, and hazardous materials response.

According to Shackelford, “One of the main capabilities we are testing in this exercise is the notification of response organizations. The initial 9-1-1 calls to activate teams and dispatch members will occur Friday afternoon. This is what we call an out-of-sequence event. It allows us to evaluate communication and dispatch procedures,” he explained. “Being an exercise and the amount of recruitment and planning that occurs, all assets and teams will arrive Saturday morning with the mindset that we have already been dispatched and we can hit the ground running. It allows us to control the exercise and use resources wisely,” Shackelford stated.

The Saturday event will include two platforms: exercise and training. He continued, “the exercise portion for the Local Emergency Planning Committee will be based on a hazardous materials incident in which simulations will be very realistic to a scenario. Due to an exercise environment, the missing stressors are the realistic threats to people, environment and property. Nonetheless, the hazardous materials portion will have realistic simulations occurring.”

The rest of the day’s events will be based on a plausible emergency scenario, but taking place in a self-paced and controlled training environment. This will give specialty response teams practice in tactical procedures and capabilities, and help them learn to effectively integrate with private sector teams on a larger scale. “Testing multi-jurisdictional/agency response to disaster scenarios do not occur frequently, so the advantages to do so are tremendous,” Shackelford acknowledged.

“In an exercise like this,” he explained, “there is a certain amount of information known about the scenario to plan for personnel and equipment to be available in order to test the command structure, special teams and other partners. The simultaneous training that will be happening will also test how these units collaborate in the response.” Shackelford continued, “As for the training portion of the event, they know what actions they will be taking but do not know the number of missing people or where they can be found within the 700-acre site of the mock-incident.”
He explained that the Hazmat chemical hazard portion of the exercise will be totally unknown to first responders, who will need to identify the hazard upon arrival, since one of the evaluated portions of the training exercise is incident assessment.

While this seems like a very aggressive undertaking, according to Shackelford, his office at the OHS/EM has instituted a very active exercise component at, for example, in 2015, firefighters with the Portage County Urban Search and Rescue Team participated in Guardian Shield ‘15, an interagency, multi-state exercise that brought together local first responders, state and federal agencies and regional National Guard assets to test their capabilities to respond to a simulated complex catastrophe situation. According to Shackelford, the exercise included 1,000 people throughout multiple locations, in which Portage County was included.

“Additional disaster exercises and drills occur continuously as we attempt to strengthen our county and municipalities’ ability to respond to and recover from our worst hazards,” he shared.
Throughout the exercise, evaluators will be filling out forms or exercise evaluation guides in response to observed actions during this Saturday’s exercise. The forms will be submitted to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, Northeast Ohio office, which will submit the evaluation packet to the Ohio State Emergency Response Commission for approval.
For both training scenarios of the day, a ‘hot wash’, or debriefing, will follow the exercises in order to identify areas of improvement. The PC OHS/EM will work to develop corrective actions, if necessary, to strengthen response partners.

The following agencies and organizations will participate in the exercise: Portage County OHS/EM – LEPC; Portage County Sheriff’s Office; Medical Reserve Corps with the Portage County Health District; fire departments for Charlestown, Edinburgh, Garrettsville-Freedom-Nelson, Kent, Mantua-Shalersville, Palmyra and Paris; Portage County Hazardous Materials Response Team; Portage County Urban Search and Rescue Team; Portage County Water Rescue Team; Portage County Incident Management Assistance Team; Amateur Radio Operators/PC OHS/EM Communications Unit; and Big Creek Search and Rescue.

All teams are comprised of volunteers and members of various fire and police departments in Portage County. “Our office greatly appreciates the efforts and willingness of local first responders to participate in exercises. What we learn strengthens our preparedness and coordinated response and will benefit our residents if we face a disaster,” Shackelford said.