Storms test county's emergency preparation
We did a phenomenal job,' public safety director says
Prince George's County has tested its preparedness for flooding, excessive heat waves and even the release of hazardous chemicals, but none of the exercises had detailed the effort needed to clear the estimated 30 inches of snow dumped on the county in the back-to-back snowstorms last week.
Despite having never prepared for such a large-scale emergency, county Public Safety Director Vernon Herron praised agencies for pulling together quickly and working comprehensively to address problems.
"This was our first real test, and we did a phenomenal job, because this disaster hit the entire county," he said of implementing the wide-scale response.
To meet the challenges, emergency dispatchers, police and corrections officers chose to spend nights at work to ensure their departments had the workers they needed onsite when snowstorms crippled roadways. First-responders worked with plow crews to carve paths to patients who needed medical attention, and repair crews worked nonstop to fix vehicles damaged when the snow-packed roads got the best of them, Herron said.
A state of emergency was declared Feb. 5 and has not been lifted yet, Herron said, emphasizing that the county was still not out of the woods as snow began falling again Monday.
Residents in parts of south county complained that snow plows did not touch their streets for days after the storms, leaving them stranded. County officials said keeping main roads clear was their first priority, followed by secondary roads and then many of the neighborhoods.
The snow was manageable until the second storm hit Tuesday, said Susan Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Public Works and Transportation. After that, heavy-duty snow removal equipment had to be brought in from outside the state to handle the large volumes of snow.
Herron said he hopes citizens will have learned lessons from these storms, especially the importance of stocking emergency supplies or having a back-up plan in case their home loses power.
"You have to make sure you have adequate supplies, medication and water," Herron said. "A lot of people were stuck inside their homes and a lot of people didn't have the essentials they needed. We can't preach this enough that you have to be prepared."
Herron believes the county will learn lessons from the storm as well and expects officials to talk over the strengths and weaknesses of their response within the next week. While other governments, such as the Washington, D.C., and some neighboring counties, made maps available online of roads cleared by snow plows, Herron said the county does not have the GPS equipment in its vehicles to provide the same service to county residents. It may be one improvement the county may choose to look into later, he said.
"We want to be able to fill the gaps in so we won't have those same issues again," Herron said. "There is no template for all emergencies. We try to learn from the emergencies we experience or other jurisdictions experience so we can learn from there."
When responding to emergency calls, first-responders went to whatever lengths possible to reach residents in distress, said Prince George's County Fire/EMS spokesman Mark Brady, acknowledging that response times were slower than usual due to the poor road conditions. Ambulance Humvees from the National Guard were put into service so paramedics could transport patients, and snow plows escorted fire apparatus and ambulances to improve accessibility.
When the snow chains installed on fire and EMS vehicle tires began to break, officials had to quickly order 100 new sets, which arrived Feb. 9, just before the second snowstorm, Herron said.
Public safety agencies also borrowed every county-owned four-wheel-drive vehicle available so first-responders would be able to get around.
From 10 a.m. Feb. 5 to 6 p.m. Feb. 11, the fire and EMS department received 3,805 calls for service, about 1,600 more calls than they would normally average for the same time period in winter. Police and fire and EMS departments combined received 728 calls involving vehicle accidents during that time.
The police and sheriff's departments actually received fewer calls then they would have on average during this time of year, receiving 12,868 rather than an average of 16,800 during the same time. There were far fewer reports of violent crime during the storms, Herron said.
The storms have been the biggest disaster challenge the county has seen, Herron said, adding that the training of emergency personnel and the commitment of employees made the emergency one that both the government and citizens can learn from.