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October 7, 2011

Calif. agency trains workers for disasters

By Adam Foxman
Ventura County Star 

VENTURA, Calif. — A day after the first fall storm drenched Ventura County, blue skies returned, streets were dry, and the county Public Works Agency was preparing for disaster.

Nearly 50 members of the agency gathered at its offices in Saticoy, brainstorming about how they would handle a major downpour followed by an earthquake with a second storm in the forecast. The scenario was part of the agency's third Storm Day training exercise.

The training was timed to help the agency prepare for a storm season that typically lasts from October to April, officials said. The session aimed to get field staff members thinking about how they would respond to incidents such as floods and debris flows. 'We haven't had really bad storms in the county in a few years. ... Refreshing what we do when that happens is very important,' county Transportation Department Director David Fleisch said.

The training focused largely on communication. In part, it was meant to help familiarize people with WebEOC, a kind of internal online clearinghouse for disaster information. In disaster preparedness circles, EOC stands for 'emergency operations center.' Inaccessible to the public, WebEOC lets officials and emergency responders enter information about events such as evacuations and school and road closures. About 700 people, including law enforcement, military personnel and city officials, can access and update information, said Cynthia Elliott, a program administrator for the county Office of Emergency Services.

By letting emergency personnel get real-time information about disasters, the system also helps prevent them from wasting resources, she said.

During the training, participants responded to fictional WebEOC updates. One stated that a magnitude-6.2 earthquake had struck near Oak Ridge, north of Happy Camp, causing major damage. Another said a storm patrol from the Ventura County Water shed Protection District was reporting a landslide. As they decided how to respond, participants worked in groups that included members of the watershed district and the county's Road Maintenance Division, groups that work directly together only occasionally.

Such training is important because it's easier and more efficient for departments to work together in an emergency if they are familiar with one another, Fleisch said.

Copyright 2011 Ventura County Star

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