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Officials attend preparedness workshop

3/12/2008 12:00 AM

FORT KENT, Maine — The period after a disaster is not the time for departmental turf wars or trying to figure out who is in charge of doing what.

That was the message during a hazards preparedness workshop for senior officials at the University of Maine at Fort Kent on Tuesday.

"We’ve learned that we have to train as a response community," said Sam Gonzales, former Oklahoma City police chief. "You need to know, if you have an incident, who will show up and then build those relationships."

Gonzales knows what he’s talking about. The 40-year law enforcement veteran was police chief in 1995 when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed.

While there are thousands of miles between the metropolis of Oklahoma City and the smaller municipalities of northern Maine, Gonzales’ experiences were applicable.

"Although the size and scope of the [bombing] incident was a lot larger than what could happen in a rural area, the lessons we learned are useful," he said. "There are certain issues that will come up at any incident, regardless of size."

Being prepared for those issues was the point of the daylong workshop presented by faculty from the Texas Engineering Extension Service and attended by 50 local, state and federal officials from around Aroostook County.

Taking part were representatives from town governments, state police, U.S. Border Patrol, the Forest Service, hospitals and public works employees.

All, Gonzales said, have a role in disaster response. Whether those disasters are natural or man-made, there must be a positive working relationship among all responders.

"The first test of that relationship is determining who’s in charge," Gonzales said. That job, he stressed, should go to local officials.

"The locals will be the first ones on the scene," he said. "No matter how much help you get from the state or feds, when they leave the community will be looking to the local leaders for answers."

People will respond, Gonzales said, a fact that is often a mixed blessing.

"One hundred and 12 law enforcement agencies came to help in Oklahoma City," he said. "We did not have mutual aid with 112 agencies."

With them came medical, search and rescue, Red Cross and hundreds of other volunteers all wanting desperately to do something to help.

"You will be overrun," Gonzales said. "Some of your planning must be on what to do with people who just want to help."

That, he said, leads to questions of access to the disaster and who determines secure areas and perimeters.

"When you don’t have a plan, everybody goes in," Gonzales said.

In Oklahoma City, where a majority of disaster preparedness had focused on weather-related incidents, Gonzales said, much of the response was reactive immediately after the bombing.

"We had needs that could only be met by the private sector," he said. "Luckily, the incident was during the week and they just showed up as we had no plans on how to contact them during a weekend."

It was the same with the hundreds of doctors and medical personnel who flocked to the area.

"In the middle of a crisis you don’t have the time to check people’s credentials and areas of expertise," Gonzales said. "You need a plan for that, too."

The key, he said, is to build relationships before an incident occurs with the entire response community on the local, state and federal levels.

In an area like northern Maine, Gonzales said, disasters could range from flooding to shootings on school grounds to rail cars carrying chemicals derailing.

"A lot of the response issues are the same regardless of size," he said.

Presenting at the workshop with Gonzales were Richard Comley, director of executive programs for the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center, Texas Engineering Extension Service, and Walter Ulmer III, president for Emergency Preparedness Planning in New York and an adjunct instructor at the Texas Extension Service.

Workshops focused on prevention, preparedness, response, continuity of government and community operations, medical challenges, crisis communication, private-sector collaboration and recovery.

"Northern Maine needs to hear from professionals that have real-life disaster management experience," said Tony Enerva, UMFK professor of criminal justice and public safety. "Part of our isolation means we don’t have the opportunity to hear lessons learned from those with experience."

While the likelihood of a disaster on the scale of the Oklahoma City bombing is remote in northern Maine, Enerva said, there is no downplaying the importance of being prepared.

"Whether a disaster occurs in the most rural part of Maine or New York City, in a major crisis we will support each other," Enerva said. "A lot of our people volunteer to go help others on their own time."

Enerva said he already has seen a lot of those important relationships having been built in northern Maine.

"Those are the relationships you need to have before a disaster so you can avoid any conflicts during an incident," he said. "You don’t have to like the people you’re working with, but you want to know you can count on them."

At the local level, Fort Kent officials at the workshop are confident they can present a united front during a possible incident.

"We all work together here," said Kenneth Michaud, Fort Kent’s police chief. "We all communicate together."

Town Manager Don Guimond agreed.

"We all take preparedness seriously," he said. "Systems are in place and everyone knows their roles."

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