Forest Park, Oak Park, and River Forest authorities are well aware of the realities related to the many rail lines and truck thoroughfares that pass through the area. Chris Shields, Oak Park’s emergency preparedness coordinator, said Oak Park conducted a simulated response to a chlorine gas release on CSX tracks along the Eisenhower Expressway at East Avenue last June.
The information the Shields and his colleagues develop from such activities is quite sensitive, and after reviewing the after-action report on last June’s exercise, Shields declined to talk about specifics, citing security concerns. However, at the heart of the village’s approach, he said, is communication among key government entities to assure as effective and focused a response as humanly possible. To that end, responsibility for a long list of actions and tasks is assigned well ahead of time.
Just as the military must contend with “the fog of war,” civilian agencies dealing with disaster situations requires a good amount of forethought on the part of first responders?#34;crucial if unpleasant forethought such as, which buildings could be utilized as a temporary morgue during a major disaster? Ridgeland Commons, it turns out, according to Sheilds, who noted, “It could hold a large number of people for a short amount of time on ice.”
The village’s plan for dealing with emergency situations calls for first responders to get word back to village hall if a hazardous situation exceeds their ability to deal with it. Should that happen, a command center is then set up, either at village hall or elsewhere. Flexibility, said Shields, is another indispensable key to effective disaster response.
Shields said that while authorities can make reasonable predictions regarding various elements of a given disaster scenario, other elements are far less predictable.
“A major consideration was which way the [chlorine] plume cloud was drifting [in the June derailment exercise],” Shields said. Only after authorities had determined which direction the wind was taking the deadly gas could they then direct evacuations and open shelters, he said.
“It’s an excellent display of how we’re inter-reliant,” said Shields of the exercise.
He praised such existing emergency response organizations as the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS) a 777-member strong alliance of police agencies, formed in the past several years. ILEAS is modeled after the far older Mutual Box Aid Alarm System (MABAS), an organization of 550 fire departments that was formed in the 1960s to provide equipment and man power assistance to member fire departments.
“Those organizations have been strong for a long time,” Shields said. “They understand what [other departments] need to do. Similar thought processes make it easy to work from one jurisdiction to another.”
MABAS, in fact, was utilized last week to deal with the Forest Park derailment, and both River Forest and Oak Park police provided backup for Forest Park police. Oak Park Deputy Police Chief Robert Scianna, who has primary responsibility for handling emergency response issues for his department, noted that ILEAS and MABAS are basically formalized reflections of intergovernmental agreements that Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park have had in place for many years. The last thing that police and fire professionals tasked with responding to emergencies want to worry about, he noted, is if their backs are adequately covered.
“The idea is to get [the danger] handled first, and sort the rest out later,” said Scianna.