Palm Beach County emergency officials stage large-scale, real-time hurricane drill
Apr 06, 2012 (Sun Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Palm Beach County officials conducted a large-scale hurricane preparedness drill Friday focusing on emergency response, volunteer efforts, amateur radio communications support and mass-care plans in the aftermath of a widespread disaster.
"Operation Hard Luck" involved more than 230 people and 24 emergency, volunteer and support agencies -- including the United Way of Palm Beach County, the American Red Cross Palm Beaches -- Treasure Coast Region and AmeriCorps -- staged throughout the county, said Bill Johnson, county emergency management director.
"This is a full-scale exercise," Johnson said, while observing operations at the United Way in Boynton Beach, which will serve as the main reception center for volunteers and coordinate their deployment in the event of an emergency.
Operation Hard Luck was conceived and designed as a real-time, role-playing exercise to make it as realistic as possible, with every aspect of the drill monitored and evaluated.
In the hours and days after a hurricane, hundreds of people -- nurses, doctors, mental health counselors, tradespeople, homemakers -- offer to help wherever their specialties are needed, said Donna Pulda, the United Way's manager of volunteer services.
"We coordinate and send therm where they are needed," she said.
One of the key elements of the county's emergency plan involves support from a network of ham radio enthusiasts, who can relay information between local authorities, support agencies and state and federal officials even when traditional communications -- telephone land lines and cell phones -- are out of service.
"We have deep resources and we all have equipment," said Ron Goldstein, of Delray Beach, a retired chiropractor who serves as the emergency ham radio coordinator for south Palm Beach County, as he sat in his truck mounted with a large antenna, monitoring the network traffic.
"When everything else fails, we are up," Goldstein said. "I can put this up anywhere, any time and get 50 to 100 miles with a repeater."
Also participating in the drill were the county's Community Emergency Response Teams, specially trained volunteers who provide support to first responders and assistance to residents in their communities in the immediate hours following a major emergency.
In the event of a real hurricane, officials will deploy six self-sufficient trailers with generators and communications equipment to help coordinate aid across the county, as well as set up volunteer reception centers in parks to handle a community's specific needs, Johnson said.
"We can set up volunteer reception centers in tents. It can be in multiple places," he said.
And United Way representatives will be bunkered down in the fortress-like Emergency Operations Center as any disaster unfolds, in order to direct up-to-the-minute volunteer coordination, Johnson said.
"They are going to be there with their pulse on the damage," he said. "They will be ahead of the game."
With the memories of three hurricanes that severely impacted Palm Beach County in 2004 and 2005 still fresh, and the Atlantic hurricane season approaching, Johnson said it was crucial that emergency officials continually test and refine their response plans.
"This is unique," he said. "This the first of many exercises."
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