Officials evaluate success of disaster response

Todd G. Higdon

Almost two months after the May 10 tornado, area emergency personnel converged at the Newton County Emergency Operations Center on Wednesday to review disaster response.

The review was facilitated by Keith Stammer, Jasper County emergency management director, who asked what went well and what can be improved.

“That’s the two big questions. There’s 27 different ways that you can do an emergency support function list,” said Stammer.

Communication and coordination were two of the highlights from the meeting.

“I think that it always comes back to communication. That is a big problem no matter if it is a small or large situation,” said Gary Roark, Newton County’s emergency management director. “We were somewhat handicapped because we moved to a new building and we were waiting to get our radios installed, as they hadn’t been installed yet. So that really handicapped the emergency operations center. We had to pretty much rely on cell phones and land line phones to communicate with the different parties.

“Getting the radios set up will take care of some of the problems, one of those being in a disaster in an emergency situation, we have the different agencies, fire departments, sheriff departments reporting to us here at the EOC, rather than going through central dispatch. Because dispatch is getting a lot of calls anyway, they are pretty well at max capacity, as far as handling phone calls and stuff. If we can take care of the radio communications, and handle the means that they have in the field, then we can do a better job.”

The center has six phone lines. Roark said he didn’t know if these were enough.

“That always seem more than what you need,” he said. “I guess every situation is different. The next one that happens may be small.”

Roark said most of the comments he heard during the meeting were positive, but that there are a lot of things that were addressed to be tweaked on to make them better.

“I know one thing with the (Newton County) coroner (Mark Bridges), there are certain laws that govern the moving of fatalities and he has certain responsibilities on his side to get the firemen and people doing the recovery of these people under, in cases like this, very trying conditions to start with. We possibly had some people moved that should not have been at the time,” said Roark. “But at the time, they had to make the decision on their best knowledge and you have to go with that.”

On the flip side of the coin, there were things that the county is moving right along with, that makes Roark proud on the way that it worked out.

“I think that the greatest thing was the fire departments, the way that they moved in and took over,” Roark said. “Their responsibility on doing search and rescue right off of the bat. The Newton County Sheriff’s Department and the highway patrol, they were in there immediately taking care of security for us.

"The Newton County Ambulance District did a great job getting their ambulances out as best as they could in the county, setting up triages at different locations, primarily at Highway 43 and Iris Road, where we had all 14 of our fatalities in a two-mile radius of that location there, and they had a lot of injuries at that location, too."

Roark also credited the other agencies from Southwest Missouri that came in to help.

In the last 18 months, the county has been stricken with two ice storms, various floods, and two tornadoes. Asked if the county is getting better on handling these situations, Roark said it is a learning process.

“Let’s face it, we have had so many things going on, we really have not had time to do much exercises,” Roark said. We’ve had our share. The different disasters, you learn and hopefully, and I believe our agencies are doing it, a better job, because they are anymore experience.”

Stammer agrees.

“You can only get better and better,” said Stammer.

Roark will take the information and compile it into a report, distributing them to those who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

“So they can see what it is like in writing,” Roark said. “We will have some meetings and things, try to improve things. My job is trying to facilitate what goes on between the agencies. I am kind of the go-between fire, EMS, law enforcement, hospitals and all of that.”

Neosho Daily News