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Chaos Theory

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A look inside Missoula's disaster management network

It's the Friday after Thanksgiving, just shortly before dawn. Most of Missoula is still in bed, sleeping off the narcoleptic effects of the previous evening's turkey dinners. Winter has arrived early this year in western Montana, making up for lost time after two years of unusually mild winters. A steady, wet snow has been falling since late last night.

In a small, unmanned seismic measuring station in Pattee Canyon, an ordinarily docile needle suddenly springs to life, scratching ferocious swaths of jagged lines across a white strip of paper. Simultaneously, a dozen other seismographs throughout western Montana are dancing to the same subterranean rhythm, recording what is later determined to be an earthquake of 6.4 magnitude on the Richter Scale, centered some three miles north of St. Ignatius along the Mission Fault.

Throughout Missoula, dishes tumble from cabinets and shatter, pictures fall off walls, bookshelves topple over and cracks appear in walls and ceilings. While much of the city's electrical power flickers only momentarily, tripping burglar alarms and causing VCRs and alarm clocks to flash 12:00, pockets of the city remain entirely without power. Somewhere in the University area, two early morning joggers are suddenly aware of the overpowering smell of natural gas.

Missoula's Northside and downtown areas, with their many old and historic buildings, suffer some of the worst damage. Sidewalks are littered with broken glass and crisscrossed by downed power lines. Fallen traffic signals block intersections. The brick facade of one old building has collapsed into rubble. Water gurgles from a crack in the sidewalk. Without electricity, most of Missoula's television and radio stations are temporarily knocked off the air.

Meanwhile, a tanker truck heading westbound on I-90 emerges from Hellgate Canyon into Missoula. The driver, feeling the tremor, tries to slow down on the icy highway but swerves instead, loses control and overturns within a quarter-mile of the Van Buren Street exit. The driver, hearing the high-pitched hissing of gas, flees the scene to call for help.

Photo by Chad Harder
Susan Bomstad and a handful of other dispatchers field the hundreds of calls received daily by Missoula County's 911 communications center. They're not only taking incoming calls, but dispatching police, fire and EMS, and tracking personnel, equipment and vehicles.


In Rattlesnake Canyon, residents in bathrobes and pajamas are peeking outside, trying to assess the damage. Most were awakened by the quake, the wail of car alarms, or the sound of the truck rolling over. A few well-intentioned souls are going to investigate the accident. But spotting the ruptured tanker-and with images of Alberton's deadly chlorine spill still fresh in their minds-they flee back into the dead-end canyon.

The earthquake lasts less than a minute; in geological terms, it's barely a hiccup. But the event is enough to throw Missoula's infrastructure into a tailspin.

A disturbing scenario? Definitely. But implausible? Hardly. Although the Missoula Valley is not generally considered a high-risk earthquake zone, the fact remains that between 1920 and 1960 Montana experienced an earthquake of 6.0 magnitude or larger on average once every 10 to 12 years. Whether that was an unusually active seismic period or our current period is an unusually quiet one is impossible to say.

The last major earthquake along the Mission Fault, probably the most dangerous fault near Missoula, measured about a 7.5 and occurred 7,500 years ago. As for the likelihood of another major earthquake in western Montana, Mike Stickney, a seismologist with the Earthquake Studies Office at Montana Tech in Butte says, "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."

It's perhaps the most common refrain echoed by disaster management planners: "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when." With the notable exception of Y2K, which has heightened everyone's awareness of our vulnerability and forced every municipality in the nation (if not the world) to re-think its methods for responding to emergencies, no one can predict when or where the next disaster will occur.

But the above scenario is not meant as a guess of what might be Missoula's next catastrophic event-earthquakes are still considered a low probability here-but to demonstrate how quickly one disaster can become many disasters, taxing the personnel and resources of Missoula's emergency response network.

The events in this scenario demonstrate the sheer complexity of mounting a disaster response: the likelihood of numerous casualties, of victims trapped in collapsed structures, power outages, diminished phone service, thousands without shelter, heat, water or sewers, and several hazardous materials spills unfolding simultaneously.

All of which are further compounded by Missoula's geographical restrictions (such as rivers and mountains, which limit escape routes), inclement weather, time of day, and the very real possibility that some key personnel, such as department chiefs and government officials, may be out of town at the time.

Too much for you to get a handle on? That's OK, because Missoula has well-trained professionals who are already doing that thinking for you. And without exception, they all say Missoula's emergency services are up to the task, vigilant for whatever nature or humanity throws our way.

The Incident Command

In the basement of the Missoula County Courthouse is the small, windowless office of Bill Silverman, Emergency Management Coordinator for Missoula County. Silverman is a quiet and unassuming man whose calm, easygoing demeanor belie the true nature of the mayhem he is charged with overseeing. Were it not for the photos on the wall from the 1996 floods and the Alberton train derailment-still the benchmark against which all disasters in our area are measured-one might mistake his office for a document storage area, or a cloak room.

But it's here in Missoula's Emergency Operations Center (or EOC, actually across the hall in a large conference room) that department heads from various city, county, state and perhaps federal agencies and the private sector would gather after a disaster to activate the Incident Command.

Photo by Chad Harder
As the primary trauma center for the region, St. Patrick's Hospital is fully prepared for just about any disaster, says Tom Schussler, director of risk management. "I'm pretty confident that St. Patrick's Hospital is up to the challenge. Short of a direct hit, we're going to be here doing business."


In the world of emergency management, the Incident Command System is a universal language that enables representatives from different agencies to walk onto the scene and know immediately who's in charge and who does what. Whether it's the Missoula Health Department director, a firefighter from Great Falls, a K-9 Search and Rescue team from Denver, or a FEMA worker from Washington, D.C., virtually everyone in disaster management recognizes and uses the Incident Command model.

Incident Command is like a military hierarchy with the Incident Commander (or IC) as its general. Who serves as the IC is determined by the nature of the event. For example, if Missoula experienced an airliner crash or a high school shooting, the IC would be the chief law enforcement official (the city's or county's, depending upon the location). For a major flood or a hazardous materials spill, the Missoula Fire Department assumes command. And so on.

All these details are spelled out in the Missoula County Disaster Plan, the local bible for disaster management. This legally binding document outlines the city's and county's policies, procedures, resources and disaster-specific response protocols. It is a fascinatingly informative document designed to be read easily and referenced quickly. Every neighborhood association, church group, scout troop, business and civic organization should own a copy.

Just as the military has a civilian commander-in-chief, Incident Com-mand designates a civilian as its principle executive officer who maintains ultimate responsibility for all decisions. For example, in the earthquake scenario, if Missoula Fire Chief Bob Deeds determined that the tanker spill required the evacuation of the Rattlesnake, he would first get an emergency proclamation from Mayor Mike Kadas. (Assuming it could be accomplished in a timely manner. Direct and imminent threats to human life can override that requirement.)

Below the IC are the various branches of command: safety , planning, logistics, public information and finance. The safety officer is charged with continually evaluating the safety of all operations. He or she is the only person besides the IC who can shut down operations perceived to be too dangerous or risky. The safety officer not only safeguards the lives of the public but of the rescuers as well.

"That's a new concept for us, because we finally realized that if we don't take care of ourselves, we can't take care of anyone else," says Capt. Russ Baree of the Missoula Fire Department. "Does that mean we don't take risks? No, of course not. But we are risk assessment analysts. That's what we do. We manage risk."

In a county- or state-wide disaster, it's likely that both St. Patrick and Community hospitals would be "locked down," meaning that only hospital staff and authorized personnel would be allowed in. Roadblocks would need to be set up on major arteries to allow ambulances easier passage. In this case, the operations officer would decide which are the best routes, while the logistics officer would determine what equipment and supplies are needed and available (barricades, traffic cones, flares, etc.) Meanwhile, the planning officer would determine what the next shift's tasks will be.

Interestingly enough, one of the most important jobs is that of finance officer, because as odd as it might sound, financial considerations can-and will-factor into the decision-making process during a disaster.

"That's one that people forget about that's really important," says Silverman, "because when you're responding to an incident you don't really think of the financial aspects of it. But in reality, when it's all said and done, that's where the biggest fights are."

Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson agrees. "If your incident commander is sitting there and he or she is fretting over what the financial costs of this situation are, then they're not devoting the right energy to getting the problem solved."

Missoula is fortunate to have in place an entity known as MARMOT: the Missoula All-Risk Multi-agency Overhead Team, a crew of specially trained experts from different agencies who are ready to immediately step into incident command roles. MARMOT not only allows for a speedy and fluid transition into disaster mode, but helps check a problem that notoriously arises during disasters: turf battles between agencies.

"Our strength is our cooperation," says Silverman. "There's a real sense of community here. We don't get into the turf battles during an incident. We like to say, you leave your egos at the door."

The Need to Know

During a disaster, the most coveted commodity is information, and most disaster planners will tell you that managing communication is their single greatest challenge. That not only means communication from the scene of the disaster, but also among emergency responders, dispatchers, hospitals, news media and the public, all of whom demand information immediately.

Central to the Incident Command is the Public Information Officer (or PIO), who serves as liaison between the Incident Commander and the public. The PIO has one of the more difficult jobs, not only because dozens of news agencies may be clamoring for information, but also because of the harsh realities of disasters. Simply put, the public's need to know is generally a low priority.

"The public has to recognize that some things we're not in a position to tell you, or your need to know is at a lower priority than our need to be paying attention to something else," says Lawrenson. "It's not that we're being rude or caustic or don't want you to know, but we simply don't have time to tell you right now."

"It's not a conspiracy to withhold information," says Tom Schussler, director of risk management for St. Patrick Hospital. "It's a prioritization of what needs to be done in an emergency."

Again, consider the earthquake scenario. On any given day, Missoula County's 911 communications center receives hundreds of calls fielded by only four to six dispatchers. They're not only taking incoming calls, but dispatching police, fire and EMS, and tracking personnel, equipment and vehicles.

In a major disaster, 911 would receive several thousand calls, in addition to their regular call load. The role of dispatching emergency personnel would likely be transferred to the EOC, while many other non-emergency calls would be directed to the American Red Cross.

Generally speaking, the public is familiar with the role the American Red Cross plays in disaster relief, providing food, clothing, shelter, beds and blood services. As the only agency to perform this service, they are, without fail, among the very first responders on the scene.

One of their less well-known mandates, however, is providing what's known as Disaster Welfare Information. In a disaster, volunteers from the American Red Cross would be dispatched to area hospitals and the EOC to begin compiling information on victims and survivors.

Photo by Chad Harder
As the Missoula County Emergency Management Coordinator, Bill Silverman is on the front line of Missoula's disaster response, linking the varied organizations into a cohesive unit. "Our strength is our cooperation," says Silverman. "There's a real sense of community here."


In Missoula and surrounding communities, the American Red Cross has contracts with local school districts to convert school gymnasiums into emergency shelters, (as was done at Frenchtown High School during the Alberton spill) where they would register every person who walks through the door.

This role as information clearinghouse doesn't just ease the minds of the thousands of friends and families who would inundate Missoula with phone calls from all over the world. It also enables rescuers to determine who might be missing, injured or trapped somewhere. For that reason, the Red Cross strongly urges people to check in with them during any disaster, even if you're safe or staying with friends or relatives.

The Haz Mat "Crap Shoot"

In the trunk or glove box of every public vehicle with lights and sirens on it is an orange reference guide the size of a pocket prayer book. It's called the North American Emergency Response Guidebook and it should be standard equipment in every vehicle on the road today.

If you've ever wondered what those colorful, numbered placards are for on the sides of trucks and train cars, this book helps emergency responders determine what's on board. On the pages inside is a dizzying array of chemicals, some with more letters than this sentence. Get yourself a copy, because in the event one of those tankers ruptures near you, this book will tell you how far and fast to run.

In Missoula County's "vulnerability analysis," which ranks the severity and threat of disasters based on their probability, management difficulty and threat to public health, hazardous materials (or "Haz Mat") accidents rank number one by a wide margin. They're not only a bitch to manage, but pose a huge risk to public health and have a high probability of occurring, due to the sheer volume of hazardous materials moving through Missoula on trucks and trains every day.

"They make so many new chemicals each year, it's practically impossible to keep up on them," says Baree, a certified haz mat technician with the Missoula Fire Department. "I've been to some of the best [firefighting] schools in the nation, and the people teaching these schools, top chemists in the United States, the first thing they tell you is, it's a crap shoot."

Haz mat training is extensive, like getting a chemistry degree. And even when the techs know what they're dealing with, their equipment isn't cheap. A single department can drop a cool million just to outfit a bare-bones team. That's why three years ago Missoula city and rural fire departments put together a Regional Response Team capable of not only containing a haz mat spill, but going in and cleaning it up. (This week, they'll be training for an incident just like the tanker wreck in the earthquake scenario.)

By the way, two weeks after the Regional Response Team formed, it was called to Alberton to manage the world's second worst chlorine disaster. Talk about baptism by fire.

Keep in mind that the more hazardous the cargo, the more expensive it is to ship, and unscrupulous manufacturers and shippers do not always accurately disclose their cargo. Factor in weak enforcement by the Department of Transportation and the potential for chemicals to mix and interact during an accident, and you can see why Haz Mat remains among the most challenging and dangerous jobs in emergency response.

"Unfortunately, it's an ever-evolving world," says Silverman. "The types of incidents we're going to be dealing with in the future are going to be a lot more complex than they have been in the past." This not only means toxic chemicals, but the potential for chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism.

Meanwhile, as gunfire in school homerooms across the country becomes more common, disaster planning must continually evolve. Just last week, Missoula County Public Schools conducted a lock-down drill to prepare students for an intruder. Ironically, in this year's legislative session in Helena, a proposed bill to require all school districts in the state to adopt disaster plans died in committee. Apparently, some people are slow to learn that "It's not a question of if, but when" doesn't only apply to natural disasters.

Advice From the Professionals

A cardinal rule of emergency planning is preparedness and training. The American Red Cross has a brochure called "Family Disaster Supplies Kit" which recommends that every family keep enough food, water, blankets, flashlights and a battery-operated radio to last several days to a week.

During any incident, allow rescuers to do their jobs unimpeded, and never attempt a dangerous rescue without proper training or equipment. Good Samaritanism is one thing, but macho heroics won't win you friends among the rescuers who'll have to risk their ass to pull your ass out of the fire.

Disasters are natural people magnets, but usually your best bet is to switch on a radio or TV for updates. Stay away from the hospital unless you're injured (traffic only clogs the roads so ambulances can't pass) and don't call them for patient information; by law they're not permitted to give it to you.

In a disaster, recognize that 911 lines will be inundated, so don't consume their time with non-essential calls. Instead, contact the American Red Cross. This is also good advice for anyone who wants to help. Incident Command will often set up a staging area where volunteers can gather.

Learn what else to do in a disaster, including common sense preparations for Y2K, regardless of whether it ends up being a fart or complete meltdown. Take a CPR and first aid class. Get a copy of Missoula County's Disaster Plan. Training and education will not prevent a disaster from occurring, but they can make it less disruptive.

Finally, pick up the American Red Cross' first aid book for pets. I assure you, saving your pup's life is the best $10 you'll ever spend.

"We could say, good job! Our work is done," says Dott Northcutt, manager of the Western Valleys Chapter of the American Red Cross. "But when you deal with disasters, we know our work will never be done. But our promise is, we will be there."

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