Lincoln City Emergency Management Coordinator Ken Murphy says disaster preparedness is like an insurance policy. You may not need it now, but there’s nothing wrong with having it in case you do need it.
The City of Lincoln City met virtually Monday, Oct. 5 for a work session to assess the City’s evacuation efforts following the September wildfire event that impacted North Lincoln County. The work session was led by Murphy and Lincoln City Police Department Chief Jerry Palmer, who opened the meeting applauding the efforts of City employees despite criticism from the community.
“We should be very proud of the employees who were doing a lot of independent thinking during a crisis were communications were either non existent or limited,” Palmer said.
The City had six employees lose their homes to the fires, according to Palmer. 30 employees were displace, 40 were evacuated. Palmer said several employees who lost everything were still at work, “doing their job and doing it well.”
“We must, as a city, try to make choices that are effective and are efficient based on the facts,” Palmer said. “We’re dealing with a tremendous amount of disinformation in a multi-jurisdictional event, during which a lot of things beyond our control were already either in play, whether it was road closures or things like that, in addition to how this fire impacted our ability to communicate in the first place.”
Palmer said the police dispatch center answered over 4,000 calls between Sept. 7-11 with 372 calls to 9-1-1.
Murphy spoke to some of the several public comments the City received in the weeks following the evacuation. Residents addressed concerns of directing traffic, road closures due to road work, Lincoln Alerts being sporadic, no radio information, lack of cell service, power and internet. Some of the public recommendations included clearer communications, establishing a workable radio station for emergencies, utilizing social media, using the tsunami warning system and creating more routes out of town. All comments will be posted on the City of Lincoln City website.
Murphy said communication are always tricky during emergency situations and reminded the City Council some of the issues were out of their control such as power outages. The Emergency Management Coordinator made a few observations of his own during the wildfire event that he called, “hectic and sporadic.”
Murphy said the City website showed minimal effort at the onset of the evacuations and has room for improvements. He also suggested having a dedicated employee or two to watch all City social media sites, such as the City’s new Facebook page, Explore Lincoln City Page, LCPD page and others.
Murphy said he’s still waiting for records of effectiveness of the Lincoln Alerts system, that received mixed reviews from North Lincoln County residents.
“It’s something that’s been advertised in the county ever since I’ve been here and it’s always a recommendation,” Murphy said of Lincoln Alerts. “We did try to send some information out initially to City employees and Lincoln Alerts was not working initially out of our dispatch center at the police department. I think we have to be mindful that the system is going to be dependent on power, phone systems and that type of thing. It’s not a 100 percent solution.”
Murphy also recommended developing a Crisis Communications plan that includes a joint information center that deals with social media, public information of output and input and managing information. City staff can be trained in these areas he says.
Another hot topic is utilizing radio during emergency situations. Murphy said he has attempted to work with local stations such as KBCH since he began working in Lincoln City, but has not received significant responses. Using tsunami sirens is another suggest that Murphy said the City should be careful entertaining, stating that education for the public would be key for residents to determine which sounds correspond with which emergency situation.
Murphy also spoke about the possibility of setting up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is a central command and control facility responsible for carrying out the principles of emergency preparedness and emergency management, or disaster management functions at a strategic level during an emergency. An EOC is something Murphy would like to see the City utilize if needed, but noted currently the City does not have enough employees to staff a two shift 24 hour EOC.
“At minimum, the way i have it set up, it takes 30 employees per shift to run the EOC,” Murphy said.
Although staffing would be an issue, Murphy said the City could still train staff to run an EOC. Additionally, Murphy said equipment would be needed such as laptops, whiteboards, signage capability, cots blankets, food for overnight if needed. The City had a “very modified” EOC during the wildfire, according to Murphy.
“It was effective, was it efficient? Probably not. We have to do what we have to do based on the situation,” Murphy said.
When emergency are the furthest thing from the public’s minds, Murphy said it’s difficult to get people interested in training in disaster preparedness. But training is something he’d like the City set up for both businesses and the public in north Lincoln County.
“You can never train your employees enough and you can never train the public enough,” Murphy said.
The meeting was then opened up to the City Council to pitch ideas or suggestions to Murphy, Palmer and the rest of the City staff. Councilor Judy Casper offered up a suggestion for evacuation drills similar to the one Lincoln City did during the earthquake/tsunami in Japan during 2011.
Councilor Rick Mark would like to create a Oregon Coast radio station dedicated to use during emergency situations and also asked if the County would look into utilizing other roads such as South Drift Creek for evacuations. Palmer noted that creating a evacuation route on a side road would require significant manpower for traffic control or use of detour signs to get people going in the right direction. He also stated Lincoln City routes are often connected as well.
“Every place that you leave from in Lincoln City will eventually come to a pinch point,” Palmer said. “The traffic jams we experienced are not going to be immediately alleviated even if those roads are opened.”
Palmer suggests controlling the City exits as a way to alleviate traffic.
Councilor Diana Hinton suggested utilizing radio frequencies, looking into acquiring FEMA funding and position education fliers about evacuation routes. Hinton was also unhappy with the City Council’s lack of activity during the wildfire event.
“I’m very, very disappointed at how we were just… I don’ t know," Hinton said of the City Council's inactivity during the emergency. "The only time I felt connected was when Ron (Chandler) would call us a couple times a day, which was very helpful. We have a lot of value in the Councilors that are on this City Council. We all have different aspects and strengths that we bring with us.”
Councilor Riley Hoagland suggested finding volunteer neighborhood representatives to work with emergency response teams increasing communication to the public and Councilor Mitch Parson would like the City to look at fire prevention and mitigation throughout the City limits.
“Fires travel different and this one seemed to crawl along the ground,” Parsons said. “We have a lot of forested areas in town and as a city we might want to look at how we could be prepared for this going forward.”
The City staff will now look at putting together specific recommendations that they can make to the County to further improve their disaster communication and response.