City prepares disaster plan

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

In a community where cruise ships are part of the summer scenery and no one wants to think about things going wrong, some Juneau residents spent Friday morning imagining the worst.

Dave Eley, executive director of Alaska Steamship Response, said he was impressed with the energy shown by people who would have to respond to a disaster such as a fire or explosion on a cruise ship carrying 2,000 passengers and 1,000 crew members.

In a room with emergency responders, public health professionals, representatives from the cruise industry and the U.S. Coast Guard, Eley noted that Southeast Alaskans understand they have to work together.

Sitka, Haines and Skagway also were represented.

Tom Gemmell, a consultant of fisheries, maritime operations and emergency management, said the chances of Juneau's having to deal with such an emergency are low.

"The main purpose was getting people doing problem solving," he said.

"It's not much of an exercise or drill if it's just you and something you can easily take care of," said Cmdr. John Sifling, commanding officer of the Coast Guard in Juneau. He also played a role locally in a national homeland security exercise in February.

As with that exercise, efficiently handling a disaster involving a ship carrying 3,000 people would come down to establishing a unified command, with the needed federal, state, local and private agencies agreeing to work under common leadership, according to the draft of the emergency plan.

The plan was something Juneau had to develop from scratch, said Cheryl Easterwood, the city's disaster-plan manager. The city currently doesn't have one. After calling around the country to look at other cities' plans, she said Juneau couldn't find any.

Juneau's plan could become something other communities look to when they develop their own, Easterwood said. The Assembly is looking to consider approval of it in May, the first month of the local cruise-ship season, she added.

Sifling said Friday's exercise provided the opportunity for people to share ideas that could make it better.

Working in one of four small work groups Friday, he said he was impressed with the ideas he heard.

One idea was that the Alaska Marine Highway's new fast ferry, the Fairweather, could provide emergency assistance in ways that previously have not been available, he said. It could provide an emergency platform where injured people from the ship could be evaluated, he explained.

Also, people from the cruise industry pointed out that identifying patients and victims from a ship would be made easier by using the identification information that the ships require for security. Cruise passengers would have to have recent photos in the ship's database.

Eley said he was most impressed with the way people were so willing to work together to respond to a disaster.

"I've been doing this stuff for a long time, from the Black Sea to West Africa," he said, noting he had worked with the United Nations in London. The cooperation between people from different agencies "in Alaska, in Juneau especially," is important.

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