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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

ShakeOut - Coming to a home, school or business near you

Today’s blog comes from Dr. Mike Conway, Chief of the Geologic Extension Service of the Arizona Geological Survey. Dr. Conway is a volcanologist with an expertise in small-volume basaltic systems, such as the San Francisco volcanic field near Flagstaff, Ariz. Mike has worked at the Arizona Geological Survey since 2007.  Prior to that, he was a Professor of Earth Sciences at Arizona Western College for nearly a decade. He received his Ph.D. from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich.

Twenty million two hundred thousand and counting! That’s the number of people enrolled, so far, in the Great ShakeOut, ‘Drop, Cover, and Hold On’, earthquake preparedness exercise scheduled for Oct. 15, 2015.

People from 40 U.S. States, U.S. territories, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Colombia and Italy, among others, are taking part in ShakeOut 2015. California leads all participating states with over 10,000,000 people registered.  More than 73,000 people are registered, including more than 40,000 school-age children, and 20,000 university students and faculty, to participate in the Great Arizona ShakeOut.

So why ShakeOut in Arizona? Because large and small magnitude earthquakes are a common occurrence in the western U.S. A small magnitude earthquake feels like a sudden jolt and the ground shaking lasts for a mere second or two. But the ground shaking that accompanies a larger magnitude earthquake – say a magnitude 7 - can last for more than a minute and collapse bridges, damage buildings, destroy roads, and injure or kill people.

In Arizona, large magnitude earthquakes are rare. But they can occur, and just as importantly they happen with greater frequency in surrounding states – California, Utah and Nevada – and Mexico. Yuma, has a population of 100,000 and is located just 60 miles east of the San Andreas Fault system--one of North America’s most active and dangerous faults. “Drop, Cover, and Hold on” is  a strategy employed by Yumans to minimize injuries and stay safe.

We cannot predict when or where the next major earthquake will happen. The science is simply not there, and it’s not even close. But we know where major fault systems lie, and we know what areas are more likely to be impacted by severe ground shaking. Our first, best strategy is to prepare our families, homes and business for the impact of a large earthquake through drills and exercises like the Great Arizona ShakeOut.

Kids ShakeOut 2012
Please join the Arizona Geological Survey and the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, and 73,000 of your neighbors in participating in the Great Arizona ShakeOut at 10:15 a.m. on Oct. 15.

Some online resources:
·         The AZGS YouTube channel has earthquake and fault videos, including a 90-second, time-lapse video and a webisode titled “Earthquakes in Arizona 1852-2011.”

·         Arizona is Earthquake Country” is a 44-page earthquake primer with maps, pictures and illustrations (8.5 Mb)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This is a Drill

Unit 2 at PVNGS. Photo by: APS
“This is a drill. The State Emergency Operations Center has been activated for a situation at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Report to your assigned duty station. This is a drill.”

After receiving this message, I hung up my cell phone and headed out to the car with three of my coworkers at the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA).

We were exercising a Hostile Action-based (HAB) Incident at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS). The call meant the exercise had begun.

Federal regulations mandate PVNGS and its emergency response partner agencies conduct regular drills and exercises to evaluate plans, emergency response capabilities, and related protocol. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) evaluate the exercises every other year.

DEMA participates in a few different types of Palo Verde exercises. There are Plume Exposure Pathway (the 10-mile radius where protective actions could be needed to protect public from the effects of exposure to radioactive materials) and Ingestion Exposure Pathway (a 50-mile radius where food or potable water could become contaminated as a result of a release of radioactive materials in the atmosphere) exercises. The exercise this month simulated a hostile action at the Palo Verde plant. 
Inside the Palo Verde JIC.
Photo by: APS, C. Aanensen
If an event were to happen at PVNGS, I would be part of the team working out of the Joint information Center (JIC), 30 miles west of downtown Phoenix.

A JIC is a place where public information officers (PIOs) and representatives from a variety of agencies coordinate public information activities. We all contribute to information dissemination and media briefings. By being co-located, we can insure the right message is being accurately released to the public.

This wasn’t my first trip to the JIC. The state of Arizona, Maricopa County, PVNGS and other partners often practice responding to a variety of emergencies at the plant.

This one was a little different as it was being evaluated by FEMA and the NRC. This was the first federally-evaluated HAB exercise in support of PVNGS. As such, a lot more people were at the JIC than during a regular exercise.

While one of my co-workers drove, I started reading incoming emails. Events were unfolding very quickly out at the plant, and I wanted to stay on top of information while en route to the JIC. Apparently they were already at a Site Area Emergency. Site Area is the third highest of the four possible emergency classifications at the plant.

A Site Area Emergency is declared when small amounts of radioactive material could be released near the plant due to potential events involving actual or likely major failure of plant functions needed for public protection.

The highest emergency classification level, a General Emergency, is declared when radioactive material could be released outside the plant site, or a hostile action could result in a loss of physical control of the facility.

By the time we reached the JIC, more information was coming in about events at the plant--potential assailants, power concerns, etc.

When enough people had arrived, the JIC manager formally activated the JIC and we really got to work. An update was given to the group immediately. Each person shared information they had received from their particular agency. A media briefing was scheduled and the group started working on a news release.

Inside the SEOC
Photo by: DEMA PAO, Spc. Wes Parrell
My contact at the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) shared what information she had and what protective action decisions had been made by the policy group.

The SEOC at Papago Park Military Reservation is the place where representatives from state agencies and its partners work to coordinate the State’s response to emergencies and disasters. They are the decision makers for their agencies and lead the response to occurring events. They collect, gather, and analyze incoming information and then make decisions to protect the life and property of the community.

Back at the JIC, the agency spokespersons gathered in the green room to discuss what we needed to share with the media and the public. Representatives from PVNGS; Maricopa County emergency management, public health and sheriff’s office; DEMA, Red Cross, and the FBI talked about what information needed to get to the public right away.
Addressing the media at the JIC.
Photo by: APS, C. Aanensen

Any information affecting the public (including calls to action) is always the priority. When we entered the media briefing, the protective action for the public (i.e., every person within five miles of the plant) was to shelter in place.

We each made our statements, answered questions, and headed back into the JIC where we were given updates as to the latest happenings.

We went through the process of gathering information, meeting, taking phone calls from our EOCs, writing news releases, and addressing the media three more times before endex, which is jargon for “end of exercise.”

I enjoyed the exercise and grow more comfortable in my role each time we train together. As a PIO, having all the right people in the room makes it easier as well. Drills and exercises improve interagency communication and helps build working relationships. Interacting with my partners in a steady state (non-emergency) makes it easier to work together in a time of stress and emergency.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Aspects of deployment are the same everywhere you go

Eric Ehmann is a Disaster Recovery Specialist with the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA). Eric has worked at DEMA for 5 years. In his role as a Disaster Recovery Specialist, Eric deploys to communities affected by disaster to help survivors recover. He has worked with communities impacted by the Wallow Fire, Beaver Dam flooding, and other events.  Eric has worked in Christian ministry and for non-profit organizations over the last 25 years.

I saw the flash flooding in Colorado City on the news. I was sad to see the loss of life. Then the call came in to see if I could go up to the Arizona and Utah border to help assess the damage and the well-being of the community. We also hoped to demonstrate to a rural and secluded community that DEMA is responsive to all communities in all corners of the state.

Our team left from Papago Park Military Reservation in Phoenix for Colorado City in the early morning. Four of us were going to help with preliminary damage assessments
Ehmann assesses infrastructure damage in Colorado City
Photo by: DEMA staff

Seven hours later, we arrived at the Colorado City Fire Department, tired from the drive, yet ready to work. We met with Byron Steward, the Mohave County Emergency Manager, who took us on a tour of the damage and introduced us to the local fire chief. Steward is great to work with and one of those guys you know will do what it takes to get the job done.

What we found amongst the people of Colorado City was what we always find so soon after a disaster; people were confused, seeking information and hurting. I expected to get a sense of rejection or indifference and that didn’t happen. 

What I came across were people who were glad to meet us and appreciative of our presence. I spoke with locals who had been searching for a missing child who, it was later discovered, died in the flood.

I also spent time with a family who lived along a washed out road. They were eager to speak with me and willingly showed me a video of the flooding. This was unexpected, but a reminder that people want to connect to others no matter how unique the area. People were humbled by our presence and hopeful for the future of the community.

After completing our survey and meetings for the day, we stayed in a small town just across the Utah border. 

The next day we headed back to Colorado City for a final review and to look at a couple of sites that we did not get to the day before. In total, there were six sites with road damage. No individuals reported damage, though we do know that some homes got water inside.

Though the culture was very different from my own, it wasn't hard to see the need for compassion and the desire for help in the recovery process. It never ceases to amaze me how important information and communication are in these situations. I know that the town felt valued and cared for. They didn’t feel like they were left alone to fend for themselves.

Giving people hope and someone to walk with in the process is what I find so satisfying about responding to disasters.

Friday, September 11, 2015

May the road rise up to meet you (a bit of preparedness may help)

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
I recently returned from an amazing 10-day trip through the rolling hills of Ireland. My husband and I, along with six friends, made the journey. We had an incredible time riding bikes along the coast, up and down hills, and alongside many sheep strolling the roads. The scenery was phenomenal, the weather was all over the place, and the people were some of the nicest I have ever met. We rode bicycles six of our ten days, but also toured some castles, abbeys, and other places on our off days.

How does someone plan to prepare for a trip like this, I asked myself in the weeks leading up to our departure. The fact that our tour guide suggested we each only bring one suitcase was the smallest concern on my list of being properly prepared.

The biggest preparedness task for us was communications based. I created a list of where we would be at all times, including dates of arrival, addresses and phone numbers. My parents were staying in Phoenix with my daughter, and I didn’t want to solely depend on our cell phones in case they needed to contact us.

I also provided my parents with a copy of our family communication plan, which includes all of our important phone numbers and contacts, like my daughter’s doctor and the pharmacy. And, being a bit of a planner, I had an additional two pages of notes, more contacts, directions, etc. for them, just in case.

Being as we were going to be riding bikes for a large portion of the trip in a country where it could be sunny and warm one minute, and rainy and freezing the next, preparing for the weather was quite important. We checked the forecast every day leading up to our trip. We also researched what type of weather could occur this time of year in Ireland. We packed some items for the worst case scenario (freezing rain and strong winds), and dressed in layers to keep us warm and dry.

It’s a good idea to know what the seasonal hazards are in the areas you are traveling. Does it have a history of heavy rain and floods? Is it prone to high winds and hurricanes? When is wildfire season? Research what to do if any of these do happen while you are on your trip. Learn about local alerts and what radio stations broadcast the weather.

We wouldn’t be driving during our trip, but if you plan to do so, pack an emergency supplies kit for the car. You want to be prepared in case you get lost, stuck, or your car breaks down. The kit should include some food, water, medicine, a first aid kit, flashlight, hand-crank or solar-powered radio, blanket, and a cell phone charger.

My husband and I packed a mini-emergency supply kit with enough medicine to last the extent of our trip, plus a couple more days in case we didn’t make it home as planned. We packed two cell phone chargers, headlamps, and a small first aid kit as well.

Before we left Arizona, I printed out where we would be going each day, along with hotel and travel information. During our daily rides, our guides provided us with detailed maps.

When traveling, do not rely solely on your GPS or phone for directions. Write down or print out your directions. Your devices may not work when you need them most; especially, when you’re in a foreign country.

We returned from our trip happy, tired, and full of wonderful memories. We were prepared for everything Ireland threw at us (freezing sideways rain and blustery headwinds, while going up steep hills of course), and didn’t need anything that we didn’t have.

Preparing ahead of time can ease any worries and help you have that successful trip you’ve been planning. Sláinte!

Be sure to check out the Arizona Emergency Information Network,, for more preparedness tips and hazard information. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Immersed in the World of Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station

Heckard with Instructor Jim Ledford
and Bob Beamon, VP Site Operations
Today’s blog comes from Matt Heckard, DEMA’s Radiological Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. 

Heckard has worked in the Radiological Emergency Preparedness Branch since the beginning of 2015. He previously worked in emergency planning. Heckard holds a Bachelor of Science degree from NAU, and a designation as a Master Exercise Practitioner (MEP) from FEMA-NETC. He worked in healthcare for eight years prior to joining DEMA.

Arizona is home to the largest nuclear power plant in the United States, located about 50 miles west of downtown Phoenix.  Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS) is home to three nuclear reactors, which have been supplying the southwestern U.S. with power for almost thirty years.  

The Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) is the lead Arizona agency for a joint federal program, the FEMA Radiological Emergency Preparedness (REP) Program, that helps PVNGS maintain an active relationship with federal, state, and local government partners “beyond the fence” of the plant.  This relationship is of critical importance to make sure that all entities know how to work together to protect the health and safety of the public at all times, and especially in the event of an incident at PVNGS.

As part of my position within DEMA assigned to the REP program, I ventured out to PVNGS for an intensive four week training class during most of July and part of August.  My goal was to gain an in-depth understanding of how a nuclear power plant works, what can go wrong, and what systems are in place to protect Arizona and the whole community from the risks associated with a potential release of radioactive materials into our environment.  

Unit 2 is one of three units at PVNGS
The prospect of learning so many complex details within a short amount of time was both daunting and exciting.  Normally, the class is reserved for PVNGS technical personnel who take a version of this class that is six months long.  Aspiring reactor operators, who will actually work in the control room and operate the plant, take a version that is eighteen months long.  

Despite these challenges, the REP program in Arizona recognizes the importance of this knowledge in being able to partner with PVNGS and form a common operating picture based on mutual understanding of hazards to our community. I felt a strong sense of duty to do my best to strengthen and enhance that relationship, and to become a more effective resource for DEMA and Arizona.

During the first week, I made every effort to immerse myself in the volumes of technical material, specifications, systems diagrams, and a whole new language of nuclear science and reactor theory. We took a 40 question test every week, and the material was cumulative, meaning that each successive test included not only the material from the current week but the previous weeks as well. Subject matter experts from almost all departments within PVNGS were invited in to lecture on  specific programs; including chemistry, regulatory affairs, fuel handling, water reclamation, security, and my personal favorite, emergency preparedness.  

As the weeks went on, I became more accustomed to incorporating the additional levels of systems into one complete model. Understanding how power is generated in a nuclear power plant provides a crucial context for understanding what kind of protective actions Arizona may take if there is an incident. Most importantly, a release of radioactive materials from PVNGS into the environment is something Arizona and PVNGS know how to detect, monitor, measure, and ultimately strategize to mitigate. 

Unlike many other types of emergencies, these factors add up to a significant advantage in the hands of Arizona officials, DEMA, and emergency responders. This is the crucial basis of the REP Program which prepares for an emergency at PVNGS through planning, training, and exercising efforts.
PVNGS Reactor-fuel Assembly

By the end of the fourth week, I left with a renewed sense of confidence in PVNGS, the REP Program, and the scores of highly trained and highly dedicated individuals who support both of these programs within Arizona. 

During a tour inside the plant itself, weaving our way around hot steam piping, turbines, pumps, and electrical breakers, I was struck by the condition of the plant itself. Even here, inside an area in which few people outside the plant will ever see, everything was kept meticulously clean, organized, and in good repair. 

It’s just another piece of evidence as to the quality of the attitude and approach to harnessing 4000 megawatts of power, and respect for the unique and demanding responsibility of nuclear power in our age. I feel better than ever to be here and be a part of it.