Tuesday, October 13, 2015

This is only a drill – for now

By Barbara LaBoe

Recently, we – along with volunteers from the commercial trucking community – engaged in a little make believe to help with our real-world results.

Let’s pretend, we said, that Interstate 5 was shut down and wouldn’t open up for several days. How would we get needed goods – including emergency supplies – through to residents?

We might have a detour road identified, but often those smaller or rural roads can’t handle lots of heavy commercial trucks like an interstate can. In that case, we activate our Commercial Vehicle Pass System. The pass system allows truck drivers to sign up for access to restricted detours and, if needed, prioritizes which trucks get through based on the importance of their cargo. (State officials set the priorities based on the particular emergency; with “A” being the most urgently needed items).

Our Commercial Vehicle Pass System gives drivers set times and detours
to take when major highways are blocked – helping avoid uncertainty
and long backups like this one in early 2008 on Interstate 90.
Working with trucking company volunteers, we asked truck drivers to go on-line all at the same time during the drill and try to sign up for a pass with a specific three-hour access window. (Passes must be displayed to law enforcement before a truck can enter a restricted detour).

During emergencies, the passes tell drivers when and where
they can detour around major highway closures.
The pass system was developed a few years ago and is being regularly revised to make it easier to use. New this year, for example, is a feature that allows truck drivers to display the pass on their cell phone screen instead of having to print it before heading out.

Along with revisions comes annual reviews and testing of the system: Because a disaster response plan is only helpful if we can actually implement it. This drill’s goal was to test the system in real-time, to ensure it could be used quickly and efficiently and to see how well we can fix any problems on the fly. The results? We’re still analyzing surveys the volunteers took after the drill, but we already know we want to do more outreach with trucking companies about how the system works and the new mobile device options.

Our staff worked the computers and phones in our Emergency
Operations Center during the drill.
The CVPS drill is just one of many that we conduct throughout the year to keep our own skills sharp, ensure our partners know how to work with us and to spot any problem areas now, while there’s still time to fix them. Some drills are internal while others draw on volunteers and partners for help. All are designed to help us improve and lessen the stress and disruption of actual emergencies.

Of course, there’s no way to ever be completely prepared for every disaster. And we know there will be crisis-specific challenges in each new situation. But by holding drills now, we believe we’ll be better able to safely get goods and people back on the road as soon as possible.