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Weaknesses, strengths of response efforts identified in after-action report on historic disasters

COURTESY PHOTO: CCSO - The skies were red in Molalla during the first week the wildfires burned in South Clackamas County.A newly completed report includes recommendations for Clackamas County to improve response to emergencies like the devastating September 2020 wildfires and subsequent ice storm of February 2021.

In the 63-page report obtained by Pamplin Media Group, an independent review team was enlisted by the county's Disaster Management department to create an improvement plan by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of disaster preparation and response efforts made by county staff, community partners and supporting agencies following the historic storms.

Oregon's northern counties were left ablaze like never before last September after high winds coincided with an ongoing drought, causing widespread harm to wildlife and leading to the evacuations of thousands of residents. Soon after, the worst ice storm in decades swept the region with a new set of health safety and hazards, including power outages and further damage to property following the fires.

In response, the county implemented measures outlined in its Emergency Operations Plan and the included Continuity of Operations Plan — frameworks that provided a foundation for mitigation and relief efforts, but ultimately facilitated outcomes that some county leaders deemed a failure.COURTESY MAP: CLACKAMAS COUNTY - The range of the Lionshead and P-515 fires on Sept. 21, 2020, extended across most of the county.

In the report, consistent revisions to the emergency plans were among several corrective recommendations made by members of The Olson Group, a national emergency management consultant hired by the county for their expertise in the field, according to a county spokesperson.

Next steps developed by the review team were based upon aggregated data collected through crowdsourcing as well as consideration of past reports, expert input and successful practices used across the country.

Reviewers also recommended creating additional emergency management positions and liaison responsibilities for county staff, offering solutions including additional training, expanded job descriptions to require emergency management skills and establishing a volunteer resource center.

An unnamed 911 dispatcher interviewed for the report said that a "dangerous situation" was created by relying on the people who answer emergency calls to send out the wildfire evacuation notifications.

"We were getting information over the radio about what evacuations to send; there was no structure, and we had delays sending out the notifications," the Clackamas County employee said. "Supervisors were very worried that the delays were going to cause loss of life, and it was very distressing".

Suggested improvements to emergency alerts and notification procedures included pre-determining evacuation zones, identifying multiple information-sharing methods in several languages and additional training for staff and residents to increase overall coordination, efficiency of delivery and cultural accessibility.

Also regarding communications, reviewers identified a need to increase accuracy, clarity and efficiency of internal messaging through a single point of contact and supporting liaisons at the emergency operations center. A separate public alert was sent from the Everbridge notification system regarding the expansion of wildfire evacuation areas, but 911 dispatchers weren't made aware of the alert.

"Until we received the Everbridge alert ourselves, we had been advising citizens we didn't know what that was about, and they should take whatever precautions were safest for them," said a dispatcher interviewed for the report. "It was super frustrating not to have had the information upfront and to know we'd given citizens the impression that the left hand of emergency response didn't know what the right hand was doing."

To improve the county's external emergency messaging, the report recommended increasing access to timely and accurate information by using TV, radio, websites, community message boards and central information hubs.

Limited and inconsistent access to information for residents was a concern of County Chair Tootie Smith during a July 6 policy session on wildfire response where she said all levels of government "failed horribly" and "must do better" in the future.PMG FILE PHOTO - A scene from West Linn during the 2021 ice storm showed the destruction.

Smith said many county residents she spoke with reported having access to "no communications, no early warning systems" and infrequent responses to inquiries during the fires, which she said was ultimately a failure that falls on governing bodies.

Reviewers in the report recommended introducing a clear point of contact to county staff and community partners working in emergency sheltering field to address past shortcomings in communication and coordination between the two entities. Additional safety and security training for sheltering staff was also advised.

To make the county's sheltering procedures overall more equitable for marginalized populations, reviewers' proposed determining alternate shelter locations for those most at risk in advance of disasters and specifically training staff to assist underserved groups.

Coordination and timeliness issues regarding past operational logistics were also identified by the review team, who offered possible solutions including the full adoption and integration of a unified command structure for key public-safety departments throughout the county to use in the event of large-scale disasters.

To address issues regarding financial logistics, the team suggested the introduction of dedicated logistics and finance staff at the emergency operations center and a centralized system for resource requests, procurement, tracking, audits and more.

To crowdsource feedback about disaster-response efforts, the team facilitated three virtual performance-review sessions involving guided group discussions focused on identifying "successes, best practices, areas for improvement and potential corrective actions," the report reads.

Once data analysts from the review team aggregated and processed the partner feedback, they developed recommendations also using data from questionnaire responses, incident action plans and situation reports.

Reviewers created an improvement plan by compiling each identified area of improvement and the associated recommendations into the following Federal Emergency Management Agency-defined areas for improvement planning and action: "planning, organization, equipment, training and exercises."

To address familiarity with emergency plans, policies and procedures among county staff, the team suggested providing additional training opportunities as well as updating both of the county's emergency frameworks and their supporting procedures more consistently within scheduled timelines, including "annually and following an incident requiring the plan's use."

To meet staffing needs, including better "communication with community partners and agencies" as well as increased depth of personnel, reviewers recommended pre-identifying potential future assignments for response staff, developing skill-identifying and training programs to fill gaps, as well as conducting select response operations virtually.

Despite the shortcomings of the county's recent disaster-response efforts identified by the review team, their report acknowledged the unprecedented "complexity" of responding to two historic storms while managing multiple ongoing COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

"While Clackamas County's plans, policies and procedures, as well as roles and responsibilities, may be stressed in even more challenging and unknown ways in the future, the county and its partners should be proud of the dedication and resilience that its employees and community showed during the wildfire and ice storm events," the report concluded.

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