Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

October 2, 2012

City plans for disaster

Cathy Thoele
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM —     Imagine a scenario where two semitrailers carrying hazardous material collide at Interstate 57/70 exchange ramps on Keller Drive in Effingham.

    Traffic is backed up for miles, and the accident causes a ripple of other smaller accidents. People are stranded, and a hazardous material is threatening businesses and residents.

    The scenario was the subject of a tabletop exercise for city officials Monday. Major Interstate accidents this past year in construction zones near Effingham have made the scenario realistic.

    "Every time you shut down the Interstate you create another issue," said Effingham Fire Chief Joe Holomy. "In 20 minutes, it's not unrealistic to have a 12-mile traffic back-up in all four directions that opens up to other accidents."

    The scenario, Holomy said, takes place in the city's busiest area between two major truckstops and hotels.

    "We would have to shut down power to those areas because the substance is highly flammable, and it would get into the sewer system, so it would become a residential issue," he said.

    Such a scenario would inundate the city's 911 dispatch center with calls.

    "They would have to bring in more telecommunicators to deal with those calls and everyday calls the center receives," he said. "All daily stuff at city departments would have to keep going."

    The tabletop exercise was the first for the city since it created a citywide emergency plan in 2010. Representatives from all city departments, participated in the exercise. The scenario was kept secret until city officials were given it immediately before the event Monday.

    The drill, coordinated by the Illinois Fire Service Institute, provided an opportunity for the city to test the plan as it starts to review it this coming year.

    "We learned from it. It went well," said city Emergency Management Agency Coordinator Kim Tegeler of the four-hour exercise.

    The city had guidance from the Fire Institute, which observed the exercise and supervised it, as well as a representative of Illinois Emergency Management Agency who also sat in to see if the plan is working.

    Monday's exercise also involved hospital and nursing facility staff, just a couple of the outside sources the city would rely upon in the event of a major disaster. Others include state and county agencies.

    "For a major event, we'd be pulling resources from an hour to two hours away in all directions, from Vandalia to Champaign and even St. Louis area," said Holomy after the exercise.

    The city also would rely on media to quickly disseminate accurate information to the public.

    Another test of the city's plan must be performed within three years. The full-scale drill would involve moving people and equipment in the wake of a simulated major disaster, such as a tornado or train derailment.

    For now, the city will create an after-action report of Monday's exercise to submit to the state.

    "It'll further detail the event and include any changes we feel need to be made to the emergency plan," said Holomy.

    City officials are pleased with the plan.

    "It's a very sound plan," said Tegeler.