The 100-year-old maple tree, under the extreme weight of two inches of ice, came crashing into the living room; the thunderous noise awoke the children and sent the family dog scurrying for a hiding spot. The impact shook the family’s farmhouse to its foundation and tore a hole in the living room wall big enough to drive a bus through.
Across town, the ice storm caused power lines to break free and started a tree on fire, which in turn ignited a nearby home. Residents quickly tried to dial 911 but soon found that the phone lines were dead. Instinctively, the homeowners tried using their cell phones, but for some reason they were getting no signal at all; in fact, their cell phones were acting bizarrely.
A statewide emergency radio communications drill was held for 24 hours Oct. 29-30 and included a simulated ice storm emergency coupled with a solar flare that knocked out land line and mobile telephone communications. Communications and emergency information were displayed on a large wall monitor inside the Waldo County EMA offices in Belfast, as well as 13 other participating EMA offices around the state. The drill served to test not only the people, but the plans and procedures necessary to handle real-life emergencies that can tax even the best systems.
What now? How do you get help? What do you do?
These and many other questions are exactly the reason the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency, in conjunction with other government agencies, including the National Weather Service, Maine Army National Guard and amateur radio operators from across the state, set up an exercise where the worst-case scenarios could be played out in the safety of a "make-believe" world.
Brit Rothrock, an amateur radio operator, carefully relays an important message to amateur radio operators at other emergency management agencies during last month's 24-hour-long radio communications drill.
During last month's Waldo County Emergency Management Agency's radio operators' drill, simulated emergencies were broadcast to participants who had to act and eventually call for backup when their systems and manpower became overwhelmed.
Syrena Gatewood, public information officer and volunteer for the Waldo County’s EMA office, said this kind of exercise builds relationships with the people of the WCEMA and other state EMA offices so that when something real does happen, they are ready to swing into action.
Gatewood also said WCEMA has mutual aid agreements with other EMA offices across the state to assist them in the event of a crisis that overwhelms their local resources.
According to Gatewood, all EMA officials are trained to respond appropriately to a wide range of situations, which makes them extremely valuable during emergencies.
Amateur radio equipment comes in myriad shapes, sizes and styles, and play an important part in communicating information when disaster strikes.
Participants in last month's Waldo County Emergency Management Agency's radio communications exercise listen and watch intently as simulated situation updates from around the state are displayed in real time on a big screen. It's from this room in Belfast that the WCEMA keeps its finger on the pulse of incidents statewide, allowing for timely, swift and appropriate responses.
"We're ready for just about any kind of emergency you can imagine," said Gatewood.
This year's 24-hour exercise, held from 8 a.m. Oct. 29 to 8 a.m. Oct. 30, was designed to simulate emergency response to a major ice storm and a solar flare hitting the state at the same time.
During the exercise, simulated messages and calls for supplies were received at the WCEMA headquarters. Requests for supplies, such as wood chippers and generators, were then relayed via amateur radio to other EMA offices across the state, at which point the various supplies could be located.
This year, 14 of 16 counties participated in the exercise. Close to 40 volunteers participated at WCEMA's headquarters on Congress Street in Belfast, an group of offices situated in the basement of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office.
While Mainers are not currently dealing with a major ice storm like the one in 1998, or a solar flare that could disrupt communications, all can sleep a little better tonight knowing that trained professionals, including those at the Waldo County EMA office, are already prepared for the worst.