Water rescues and other emergencies around the South Sound pick up during the summer boating season, and those distress calls will, in theory, get faster responses under a new emergency management plan set to kick off this week.
Fire, rescue and law enforcements agencies in Pierce County are set to shift from a location-based dispatch system to a “swarm and attack” system.
The old system dispatched water-emergency 911 calls to agencies closest to the incident. That agency would then call for assistance from sister agencies once the emergency was assessed. The new protocol will prompt an “all hands on deck,” involving a multi-agency race to the emergency.
“Instead of a tiering it up, we will be tiering it down, which will make it a lot faster,” West Pierce Fire and Rescue observer Rick Jankowiak said.
An emergency in Gig Harbor, for example, could mean a Tacoma Fireboat arrives first on the scene because of its speed and location. Tacoma’s new fireboat, the Destiny, is jet-powered, after all. Pierce County-based emergency watercrafts have regularly responded to calls for service as far away as Des Moines and Olympia, but only after responding to calls for assistance by the local responders. The new agreement “swarms” an incident first and sorts the details out later, so that time isn’t wasted with calls for backup. It’s already coming.
“It’s kind of an ‘all-hands race,” Tacoma Fire Department Lt. Wohlf Eil said, “because you never really know what you are going to get out there.”
A test of the multi-agency concept took to the water last week when 21 police, fire and environmental agencies conducted a mock rescue of a ferry in distress after being hit by another boat. The fictional scenario was that a boat hit the Steilacoom II ferry, which was taking on water and spilling oil into Puget Sound. Passengers, volunteers from the college ranks of Bates, Tacoma Community College, Pierce College and Key Peninsula Fire and Rescue, had to be “rescued” and the ferry had to be surrounded with hundreds of yards of containment booms strung together in an effort to contain leaking fuel – well, if there was leaking fuel since this was all for pretend.
The goal of the exercise was to evaluate both how individual agencies managed the emergency as well as their abilities to effectively communicate and work together. Multi-agency drills have become more routine with the push by Homeland Security to foster inter-agency cooperation and information sharing. Detailed debriefings after such drills continue to fill in the learning gap between agencies.
Participating agencies include: Anderson Island Fire Department, Browns Point/Dash Point Fire Department, Central Pierce Fire & Rescue, East Pierce Fire & Rescue, Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, Gig Harbor Police Department, Graham Fire & Rescue, Key Peninsula Fire Department, Lakewood Police Department, Orting Valley Fire & Rescue, Pierce County Emergency Management, Pierce County Incident Management Team, Pierce County Regional Air Support, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Port of Tacoma, South King Fire & Rescue, Steilacoom Police Department, Tacoma Fire Department, Tacoma Police Department, United States Coast Guard, West Pierce Fire & Rescue and HMS Global Maritime, which operates the Steilacoom II ferry as a reserve craft for the main vessel, the Christine Anderson.
While last week’s activities were just a drill to test first responders, an evacuation of a ferry while it is still on the water is extremely unlikely, HMS Marine Superintendent Paul Crow said while captaining the Steilacoom II. Modern ferries have two separate engines, two separate rudders and a series of water-tight compartments. If one engine goes out, a captain could just jump to the other side of the vessel and drive the ferry to a dock. The Steilacoom-Anderson island run is only about a mile, so the ferry is never more than a few hundred yards off shore. Modern ferries are also engineered to be bottom heavy so their passenger compartments remain above water even if their hulls somehow became completely flooded. But oil spills caused by an accident on a ferry could be catastrophic, since ferries routinely carry tens of thousands of gallons of fuel.
“This is great training for us too,” Crow said. “A spill like that on the Sound would be an international incident.”
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