MANSFIELD — Rebecca Owens was already planning on using a chemical spill as the focus of a countywide tabletop emergency response exercise on June 7.
But the Feb. 3 derailment in eastern Ohio of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous material, including vinyl chloride, has helped Richland County’s emergency management director focus her plans.
Instead of just a chemical spill as planned, the exercise will now gauge responses to a train hauling potentially dangerous chemicals colliding with a vehicle at a crossing somewhere in the county.
Richland County is not a stranger to flooding, tornadoes and straight-line- winds. When we are faced with these disasters, extra hands and volunteers are needed.
The Richland County Emergency Management Agency turns to their CERT team (Community Emergency Response Team) to respond when Richland County is affected.
In the past, the team has been activated to assist with floods, ice storms, missing persons, tornadoes, damage assessment and traffic control when Interstate 71 was closed down.
The CERT course prepares individuals to respond as a team to serve the county or to care for their own family or neighbors at the time of a disaster.
The team provides support to assist the professional emergency responders, i.e. law enforcement, fire and rescue and EMA.
Information covered in the course includes minor first aid, preparing for a disaster (what individuals should have on hand prior to a disaster – food, water, medicine, flashlights, etc.), how to secure a scene/disaster area, how to turn off the gas, extinguish small fires safely, disaster psychology and how to safely perform a proper and effective search for victims in buildings and homes.
Volunteers receive additional training in traffic control; and search, rescue and recovery. We encourage individuals to take the training to help our community be better prepared for disasters and major activities in Richland County.
The course is approximately 20 hours, attendance and full participation are required for an individual to receive certification as a CERT team member. Individuals must be at least 18 years of age and it is preferred that they have a valid Ohio driver’s license. The course is free of charge. Refreshments will be provided and lunch will be provided both Saturdays.
The next course of instruction will be held Friday, March 10, 6 pm-10pm,Saturday, March 11, and Saturday, March 18, 8 am – 5 pm both days.
The course will be held in the Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Operations Center at the Peoples’ Community Center, 597 Park Ave. East, Mansfield.
Pre-registration is required. REGISTER NOW by calling the Richland County Emergency Management Agency at 419-774-5686 or emailing us at Richlandccc.org.
Source: Rebecca Owens, Richland County EMA director
“We have got plenty of rail cars that go through the area every day,” said Owens, who took on her new role in December. “We’ve got tankers, semis that are carrying hazardous materials up and down the highways, as well as in towns.
“A lot of times, we don’t even know what (chemicals) are headed our way,” she said.
Local officials have said the spill in East Palestine, about 100 miles east of Mansfield, will not impact local soil, air and water. But preparing for that kind of disaster in Richland County is what Owens has in mind.
In many ways, Owens would prefer to substitute the word “prepare” in place of “manage” in her title.
“Preparedness happens far more often, thank goodness, than the management of an incident. It’s like we have things flipped. We need to be focused more on the preparedness side,” she said.
Owens coordinates the Local Emergency Planning Committee, an organization required for each of the state’s 88 counties. The LEPC is required to conduct the aforementioned “table top” exercise each year.
This year’s event will be at the Longview Center. Owens said there will be about 20 participants from partner agencies.
“The whole idea of these exercises is to make them as practical as possible,” she said. “Is this truly a reality that could happen? We don’t want to do some pie-in-the-sky kind of thing.
“So that (train-vehicle crash) is where we are at. That’s what we are preparing for. When we are done with the exercise, we will sit down for an after-action meeting and talk about what went well, what would we have done differently. Who is not at the table that needs to be at the table?” Owens said.
Owens said a “functional exercise” will be scheduled in 2024, perhaps at the county fairgrounds. In that type of event, participants will attend ready to “provide their respective services and duties,” she said.
In 2025, the LEPC must conduct a “full-scale exercise.”
“That’s where you basically imitate what has happened and people are responding,” she said. “We can create these situations, but what happens if we sit down and actually make them happen.
“It could be a very windy day, or everything is blowing a different direction than you had planned for during the functional exercise.
“There are a lot of different variables that you can plan, but you can’t plan for everything,” she said.
A key to the local response is the countywide hazmat team, which includes firefighters from multiple departments.
“I don’t want to downplay the everyday firefighter, but just like a (police) SWAT team or bomb squad, these individuals have gone through specialized training over the years,” Owens said.
“Our first line of defense is going to be to call in the hazmat team (during a chemical spill),” she said.
EMA professionals like Owens have been able to watch events unfold in East Palestine and learn from what they have seen.
Ongoing communication with the public, combined with consistent messaging, can be key.
“A uniform message from all parties is important,” Owens said, suggesting a public information officer to speak for the entire county may be appointed. “We are defining clearly, at least from the EMA perspective, who that is going to be right now.”