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City holds mock disaster training

COVINGTON - Around 40 staff and department heads from the city of Covington and other emergency service agencies gathered Thursday morning to practice for an event they hope will never happen. But if a full-fledged emergency does occur, residents can know there's a plan in place.

After Homeland Security was mandated to implement the National Incident Management System, the city of Covington decided it was time to put their own plans in place.

"The leadership of the city decided to, No. 1, start training and educating all the departments in the city on that particular system; and No. 2, start holding table top exercises in preparation for an incident or disaster should one occur," said Covington Fire Department Capt. Rob Christopher, who acted as the public information officer for the exercise.

The exercise was dubbed "Hurricane Horton," in honor of the operation's commander, City Manager Steve Horton. Participants were asked to react to demands put on them by a fictitious hurricane that was causing significant wind damage, flooding, vehicle crashes, downed power lines and other emergencies typically associated with such an event.

Among the things the experts thought a novice might not consider were the following:

CFD Battalion Chief David Copeland said he had made arrangements with Wal-Mart to use their parking lot as a staging area for large equipment;

Covington Police Department Assistant Chief Almond Turner said his men were blocking roads where flooding was occurring and would use the Turner Lake Recreation Complex as a shelter for stranded residents;

Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center Director Mike Smith said call volume was extremely heavy and he had requested that residents be notified through the media to only use 911 for true emergencies - not for asking how long the power would be out;

Newton County Emergency Risk Management Deputy Director Jody Nolan said he had contacted the Department of Family and Children Services and asked for personnel to assist with the opening of shelters, as well as the Georgia Baptist Convention for food services. He also reminded staff to keep good records of their expenses as the incident was certain to be declared a state emergency, if not a federal one.

And on it went with those in charge of electric power, gas, roads, water and more thinking and brainstorming on what they could do to lessen the impact of a real emergency on Covington's residents.

"We try to make this as real as possible," Christopher said. "Department heads have been thinking ahead and asking questions like, What am I going to need? What tactics am I going to use? What resources am I going to need? What am I going to do if my personnel can't come in and help? Where am I going to get additional help?"

He said getting answers to those questions and more is what the exercise is for.

"So, if an emergency, should it be a tornado, a hazardous material incident, if doesn't matter, does come, we can sit down and say, 'OK, we've covered that. Here's what we need to do,'" Christopher said. "It gives us the opportunity to work with all agencies and jurisdictions and to coordinate a plan to address whatever emergency or disaster there may be."