Chesterton Tribune

Town of Chesterton looks back at lessons learned from Tornado of '09

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By KEVIN NEVERS

How could the Town of Chesterton have responded more efficiently to the tornado on Aug. 19? What things did municipal personnel do right in the hours after the storm and what things—if not exactly wrong—could they at least have done better?

Those are the questions which Town Manager Bernie Doyle and Fire Chief Mike Orlich tackled in an after-action review conducted on Aug. 28, only nine days after the tornado. Participating in that review were all department heads and invited to participate were representatives of all agencies who assisted in the response. The self-critique which resulted has since been distributed to the Town Council in the form of a briefing paper.

The parameters of the after-action review:

•The establishment of a command structure and the prioritization of the response.

•The goals and objectives set by incident command during the first few hours of the event.

•The operational periods of the response and their adequacy for meeting the goals set by incident command.

•Specific failures to meet those goals.

All department heads were canvassed during the review on their particular role in the response and their success or failure in meeting their goals. “Problems attaining the objective were discussed as to future application, such as a more unified command,” Doyle wrote in the briefing paper.

The most general impression emerging from the after-action review: the need in the future to segue more seamlessly into emergency-response mode.

“Following tornado touchdown and the realization that the town needed to organize rapid emergency assistance to a wide area of Chesterton, it was apparent that not all of the department heads know where to go and what to do,” Doyle stated. “Chief Orlich and Street Commissioner John Schnadenberg were both attending conferences in Indianapolis at the time of the incident. (Assistant Fire Chief Tom Fieffer) assumed command of emergency services but there was some confusion initially . . . in rounding up personnel, bringing them to a central staging area, assessing needs, assigning tasks, and dispersing them out to the field. This is not meant to be critical of any one department or person, only to highlight the need for clearly assigned tasks and staging areas in the future. Part of the solution will come down to training in (the National Incident Management System) and practice ‘tabletop’ exercises.”

The Negative

Doyle and Orlich identified nine particular areas in need of improvement. Three of them are technical in nature:

•The failure of the tornado sirens to activate, due it’s since been determined to a malfunctioning control panel at the Porter County 911 Dispatch Center. “It is recommended,” however, “that the town have the capability of manually activating the alert sirens,” Doyle stated.

•Radio and cell-phone communications were sketchy during the response. “There was no central dispatching monitoring and coordinating radio traffic, and there was no unified set of frequencies being utilized by all responding departments from surrounding communities,” Doyle stated. On top of that, the repeater—which boosts local radio transmission signals for higher reception—“locked up within the first hour, rendering the radios useless for all but very local traffic during the first phase of the storm emergency.”

•There was insufficient power at Chesterton High School to supply electricity to the gymnasium, which would have been used as a shelter in the event of a catastrophe. “We had the town hall with a capacity for 80,” Doyle stated. “That was it.”

Three more areas relate to staffing:

•Not all department heads knew immediately where to go, while employees who could have been utilized in the response were not. National Incident Management System (NIMS) training will “alleviate that confusion” in the future, Doyle stated.

•A person needs to be tasked specifically to planning—a position roughly akin to the military G2 planning officer—who would report to incident command. “This ties in with the need for a more unified command structure which comes from experience and annual NIMS disaster management training,” Doyle stated.

•Another person—possibly the town manager’s administrative assistant—needs to be tasked specifically to the production of press releases and the dissemination of information to the media. “This individual would have worked closely with the town manager, who was being drawn in too many directions,” Doyle stated. “The town manager’s role should be one of inclusion into the (Incident Command Staff) and not one of just acting as the town spokesperson.”

Finally, Doyle and Orlich identified three additional problems:

•A NIPSCO rep did not arrive at the scene until 11 p.m., three and half hours after the tornado, a delay attributed to a breakdown in communications caused by the company’s main public information officer’s being away on vacation. “We were provided with better numbers to contact in the event of a similar incident,” Doyle stated. “This is another reason to have a disaster management plan in place that contains essentially a ‘game book’ with current points of contact and numbers.”

•Crowds impeded emergency responders. “People are naturally curious,” Doyle stated. “However, many people do not realize the hindrance to emergency operations they present by their simply being on the roads. It was recommended that we establish a perimeter around the command area in the future restricting non-essential personnel and/or citizenry from entering.”

•It took three and half hours actually to begin the house-to-house searches for casualties. “Although very well coordinated and thorough” when they began, Doyle stated, the searches “took too long to organize.”

Positive

Among the many things that went right on the night of Aug. 19, Doyle and Orlich singled out intra- and inter-agency cooperation:

•“There was no question about who was in charge, as we operated under a unified command structure,” Doyle stated. “Tasks from the command center assigned were carried out in a timely and professional manner.”

•“Inter-departmental cooperation between all our departments was evident throughout,” Doyle added.

•Doyle and Orlich also praised the “seamless transition between Assistant Fire Chief Tom Fieffer and Chief Orlich” and the “excellent cooperation between Acting Police Chief Lt. Dave Lohse and supporting law enforcement agencies from the region.”

•And they praised the volunteerism: “The rapid response and level of support by Red Cross and Salvation Army personnel, the Boy Scouts and Civil Air Patrol, outside community assistance from numerous cities and towns and local volunteers many of whom will never be known.”

•“The positive spirit and cooperation of the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office, although not widely publicized, was essential in assisting the management team in facilitating communications from a wide variety of people for extensive phone calls into the town hall the following day from the citizenry,” Doyle stated. “They are to be commended for stepping up without question.”

•“Once NIPSCO was on the scene, they performed admirably, taking the prioritization list from the Acting Utility Superintendent (Mark O’Dell) and relaying that to the field, i.e. the lift stations and (The Waters of Duneland) nursing home,” Doyle stated. “At one point, 12,784 customers were without power immediately following the tornado. By 8:10 a.m. the next morning, there were only 459 without.”

•“Streets open within two hours of the tornado included Broadway, West Porter Ave., Woodlawn Ave., and 11th, 15th, and Eighth streets,” Doyle stated. “All major streets and roads were open by the following morning.”

Damage

A review of the damage field by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 20 and then again on Aug. 25 determined the following:

•A total of 186 structures was damaged: 159 single family homes; 16 commercial properties; and 11 multi-family homes.

•Of those 186 structures, 10 or 5 percent of them were destroyed (100 percent damage); 33 or 18 percent of them sustained major damage (50 to 75 percent damage); 52 or 28 percent of them sustained minor damage (20 to 50 percent damage); and 91 or 49 percent of them were affected (25 percent or less damage).

Conclusion

“All town staff involved performed to the fullest and should be commended for their actions,” Doyle stated. “There is no question that we were lucky in that the event caused no serious injuries, fatalities, and/or extensive property damage. This event will be and should be used as a positive learning experience to reinforce the need for the town to continue in the training and use of NIMS and ICS (Incident Command System). A full PowerPoint of the timeline is being constructed by the town manager, his administrative assistant, and key participants in the storm management to be presented at a later date and for use in training exercises. It’s not a question of if a catastrophic man-made or natural event will happen, but when.”

 

 

Posted 9/24/2009