On the morning of April 23, emergency vehicles descended onto the scene at the Port of Camas-Washougal offices. “Smoke” drifted from inside the building as firefighters rescued “victims” who were screaming for help inside.
It was all part of a scheduled emergency drill, but there were many times throughout the event that it felt very real.
“When it feels real like that, it can be stressful,” said Port Communications Manager Jack Hardy. “It was real enough that I got a call from a radio station in Portland asking about what happened with the explosion.”
The concept of an “explosion” was the kickoff scenario for the Port-sponsored event, meant to help prepare its employees for an emergency. It also offered training opportunities for emergency responders from the Camas-Washougal Fire Department and East County Fire & Rescue.
It was the third such drill that has been conducted in as many years. Others were held at Grove Field and the industrial park.
“I think it went very well,” said Don MacLardy, senior consultant with Emergency Safety Solutions, a Vancouver-based consulting firm hired by the port to oversee the event. “We evaluated the port’s readiness. This is the third year we’ve done this. This time it was more internal than external.”
MacLardy explained that much of his focus was on guiding the port staff’s response to the emergency. Their process involved establishing a gathering point, creating a command post, making sure all employees are accounted for, engaging in communication with emergency responders and designating a liaison who is knowledgeable about the inner workings of the port, its staff, and its tenants.
“There were a lot of great lessons learned,” said MacLardy, a retired Vancouver battalion chief.
Hardy said among those lessons was that once port staff have exited the building, they should not return to search for missing employees.
“We need to stay out of there and let the fire department do its job,” he explained, “or we could create more problems.”
MacLardy said another element of the drill is establishing a process for what happens after the emergency itself has been resolved — the ways in which the port will continue to meet the needs and concerns of its tenants and customers.In addition to port staff and the 10 to 13 emergency personnel who responded to the scene, participants included volunteer “victims” — citizen John Waggoner, as well as Harbor Master Mark Hamric and maintenance worker Karina Hankin.
Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said emergency drills like the one on Tuesday are important for a number of reasons. Because it is a business center, the Port oversees area that could potentially be the site of a large-scale emergency causing significant injury, or loss of life. It’s critical, he said, for firefighters, paramedics and other first responders to go through the steps of responding to such an emergency, then discover what works and what should be improved.
The incredibly realistic nature of the drill, creates a useful learning environment.
“They do a really good job,” he said.
MacLardy commented there are many benefits to having port staff participate in a “live” exercise.
“Table top exercises are important — there is a certain use for them, but they are not right for every situation,” he said. “One of the problems that develops in table top exercises is you have to imagine the smoke, the injuries and the emotions.”
MacLardy said Tuesday’s drill represented an important step for the Port.
“Hopefully the public will see that the port is being very proactive,” MacLardy said. “They are the ones who see the need. They are the ones who are providing the solutions so that they can serve the public.