TOCCOA — Emergency personnel in Stephens County practiced their response to a disaster last week, saying they hope they never face a similar situation.
Taking advantage of a teacher workday Tuesday, leaders utilized a scenario that an EF-4 tornado struck, resulting in the collapse of a back hallway of Stephens County Meddle School, more than a dozen injuries and two fatalities, said Stephens County Emergency Management Agency Director Danielle Rhodes.
Units from Stephens County Sheriff’s Office, Carnes Creek Station 2, Stephens County Emergency Medical Services, Stephens County Emergency Management Agency and Toccoa Fire Department responded to the reported structural collapse in that portion of the building.
Ambulances transported about a dozen victims to Stephens County Hospital and simulated airlifting others to medical facilities outside the county.
Observers from Georgia Emergency Management Homeland Security and Rabun County Emergency Management Agency critiqued the response, providing suggestions and considerations to strengthen actual incident response.
“If this were a real disaster, we would call on the state to come and help us, because primarily once we’re overloaded locally that’s our next resource is the state, so we invite them so they can give their feedback and also they can observe and let us know any areas they see that we need to work on,” Rhodes said.
A National Weather Service representative also attended the exercise, observing and providing input.
“The National Weather Service, typically they don’t come out to exercises, but we invited them to come out today,” Rhodes said. “I think that him being here to answer any questions if there were any that came up was helpful.”
Improved on-scene communications was a concern expressed by firefighters and others who worked inside the school building during the exercise.
School system leaders and administrators talked with responders about how the system would handle setting up a reunification area for parents, sending a counselor or other official to hospitals that received victims and manage its assets still on scene.
Rhodes and others were complimentary of the students who posed as victims during the exercise.
“They did amazing,” Rhodes said. “They looked great and they played the parts very well. They seemed to have a good time, and we appreciate anytime they come out and help us because we can’t do it with dummies. We have to have people that can talk and interact with our crews, so they know what’s going on.”
Overall, officials said they are pleased with the training exercise and said it pointed out there is always room for improvement.
“Today went very well,” Rhodes said. “I feel like everybody responded well to the incident. Everybody kind of knew what they were supposed to be doing. We did identify some problem areas, some issues, but that’s the point of practicing and having an exercise is so you can identify those when the stress levels are down and it’s not really happening. This way should it happen we work through those issues and be able to respond more appropriately in the future.”