Chris Shields prefers the term “heightened awareness” to “professionally paranoid,” but the man who heads emergency preparedness for the Village of Oak Park has to think clearly in terms of worst-case scenarios.

Neither would he characterize the response to Hurricane Katrina as a debacle because he’s 1,800 miles away from it. Many of the decisions may well have been the right ones at the time, but, he said, “I’ll be interested to see what decisions were made and why. The lessons learned from New Orleans will help a lot.”

Just as they learned a lot from 9/11. “Nobody thought those buildings would come down,” Shields said. “The fire department had their command center in the lobby.”

The lessons, he noted, are never-ending. “It’s a learning tree.”

Chris Shields has learned a lot about disaster response over the years. A “Marine brat,” he became a firefighter and licensed paramedic with the Schiller Park Fire Department, where he also received training in specialty rescue techniques. His first experience with large-scale disaster response was the infamous “Freaknik” disturbance in the Cook County Forest Preserves in the early 1990s, which he describes as “chaos at its finest.” The lesson learned there was “how to contain a large population that didn’t want to be contained.”

Shields also has a degree in public health, which gave him “a unique background” when the Oak Park Health Department was looking for someone to head emergency preparedness for the village. He’s been in the job just over a year.


Oak Park has a lot of things going for it geographically, Shields says. “It’s not on the lakefront, it’s not on the ocean, and it’s higher than the Des Plaines River.” We’re also “blessed with two hospitals and we’re within a stone’s throw of 11 or 12 more.” And, according to meteorologists, our location makes us practically tornado-proof, though he knows better than to count on such speculation.

The population is highly educated, he said, which is a plus, but the downside is they’re very skeptical. He’s learned that cautionary messages about the threat of terrorism don’t go over well. At Day in our Village, he recalled, many people said, “Why are you trying to scare us? It will never happen here.”

Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, has made people more aware that not all disasters are man-made. In fact, Shields said, there are three categories: natural, man-made accidental, and man-made intentional. First you need a plan. Then you need to “exercise” the plan often enough so people are familiar with it. Then you need to implement the plan when something big occurs.

The plan calls for first responders to communicate back to village hall when a hazardous event exceeds their ability to control it. At that point, a command center is set up, perhaps at village hall, perhaps elsewhere. You don’t tip your hand in advance. Flexibility is key to disaster response, Shields said.

Each of the village’s departments has a job, which they know to put into effect in the event of an emergency. It may involve food and water supply and distribution. It may involve setting up health care clinics. It may involve evacuation routes. It may involve contacting pre-established partnerships with outside agencies and suppliers. To have a good plan, you have to be imaginative and foresee as many contingencies as possible. You can’t even assume the plan will work perfectly. Shields says you may need to take it a step at a time?#34;how to get from Step A to Step B. Then start figuring out how to get to Step C.

Every department is involved, as are the local school districts and the park district. Schools might provide the location for health clinics or mass shelter. Rec centers could provide shelter for animals or storage. The Ridgeland Common Ice Rink is a likely spot for a morgue in the grisly event that a large number of bodies need to be stored and kept cool (though cooling equipment would have to be brought in during the warm weather months). The private sector gets involved, too. The Carleton Hotel and the 19th Century Club, for instance, have been contacted about providing shelter.

A disaster might be village-wide or site specific. It could also be regional. If Chicago needed to be evacuated, a lot of people would be coming right through Oak Park.

Anticipating scenarios

What are some of the scenarios? A train derailment with a hazardous materials (known in the field as “hazmat”) release, Shields said, is one that concerns him perhaps the most. Hazmat truck spills on the roadways would be another. High-rise fires and structure collapse are always a possibility. Two CTA lines run through the village. A school hostage situation. Bombings. And never underestimate Mother Nature. There could be ice storms. There have been microbursts, i.e. rapid downdrafts of air that can flatten houses. And don’t forget, Chicago sits on a fault line, so an earthquake is not out of the question. If the Avian flu becomes transmissible to humans, quarantine and isolation will be a necessity.

But the Anthrax scare following 9/11 shows that, in spite of most people’s skepticism, bio-terrorism can’t be overlooked either.

“You have to be fluid in your decision-making,” Shields said. “The goal is to alleviate panic.”

Full-scale drill

The planning team meets monthly to review these contingencies, and at least once a year, they run a village-wide drill to stay fresh and keep learning. Shields said they held one in July (a hypothetical chlorine tanker release along a freight line) and there were glitches in communication that they can now address. Oddly enough, it wasn’t technology, which worked fine. It was jargon. Not everyone understood the terms being used by the first responders, Shields said.

Village departments knew there would be an exercise, but didn’t know the scenario in advance. Police and fire personnel had to assess the situation and make the call for a larger response. The command center was set up in village hall. Public works tracked the weather patterns. An evacuation radius was determined. The health department assisted the hazmat team. The whole thing lasted about 2 1/2 hours, Shields said, but in reality, it would have lasted several days.

In the event of an actual emergency, as they say, an Emergency Notification System is in place to make reverse 911 house telephone calls to every house in the village or to a specific area.

And, in the event of an emergency, volunteers would also be needed. Shields said they learned in the aftermath of Sept. 11 that, unfortunately, they aren’t always helpful. Many people show up and add to the chaos. Better to have volunteers in place and familiar with the overall plan in advance. Which is why they have established a Medical Reserve Corps, a national program under the auspices of the Surgeon General’s Office. Presently, they have 67 volunteers, but would like to add more. An orientation meeting is scheduled for Thursday night. Call Shields at 358-5488 for more information.

“There’s a big benefit in having people registered and credentialed in advance,” said Shields, who teaches a four-hour National Incident Management System (NIMS) course to staff and volunteers.

In the meantime, Shields’ job is to “plan for everything and hope nothing happens.” If something does happen, however, he feels pretty confident in the team approach. “The first responders here are top-notch,” Shields said. “The taxpayers have an excellent system in place.”

But they also need a system in place in their own homes?#34;as Shields himself was reminded just a few weeks ago when, during a thunderstorm, when his attic filled up with smoke at 3 a.m., and his family had to deploy their emergency evacuation plan.

“There’s nothing quite like that shrill alarm in the middle of the night,” he said. “There’s a moment of disbelief. Do you know where your car keys are? Your coats? Can you find your way out of your house in the dark?”

In other words, he says, “heightened awareness.”


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