It’s one thing to have a disaster management plan, it’s another thing to carry it out, according to Prince George’s County officials.
To test its management plan “in the field,” county government and volunteer agencies carried out a large-scale mass evacuation and shelter exercise in Upper Marlboro on Friday.
“It’s important that when we create plans, that we exercise those plans, and if there are any changes that need to be made to those plans, we make those changes and adjust the plans,” said Ronnie Gill, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.
The exercise was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of county emergency personnel in responding to a variety of situations while attempting to evacuate residents.
Phyllis Jenkins, battalion chief of the Prince George’s Fire and Emergency Management Services Department, said 265 county employees took part in the exercise.
“One thing we realize is that to attempt to move a large number of residents, it’s going to take coordination and it’s going to take time,” Gill said. “So this gives us an opportunity to test our plan.”
In the exercise, a hypothetical storm, “Superstorm Beth” causes massive flooding across parts of the county, requiring residents to be evacuated and sheltered, said Rhonda Jackson, spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management.
Cameron Grove, a senior citizen residential community in Upper Marlboro, was one evacuation site. More than 300 county residents volunteered to play the part of evacuees.
Emergency personnel had to knock on doors, escort residents and evacuate them onto waiting buses.
Vivian Dodson, former mayor of Capitol Heights, was one of the Cameron Grove residents who volunteered to be an evacuee.
“I think this is wonderful, because it’s really training the first-responders in what they’d have to do to help the people here,” Dodson said. “Also, if there’s a disaster, we’ll know what we need to do.”
Evacuating pets was also an important part of the exercise. Several stuffed animal dogs and a few real dogs helped first-responders simulate the process of evacuating pets.
“Nowadays, people will not leave their pets behind in an emergency. They want their pets to be with them,” said Rodney Taylor, associate director of the county’s Animal Management Division, which also took part in the exercises. “We always encourage people to be prepared and have a place for their pets to go, but that won’t always happen, so we have to have a pet shelter in place.”
The evacuees were transported to Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, which was set up to act as a shelter.
Rows of cots lined the gymnasium, and Red Cross volunteers and members of the county departments of Social Services and Family Services responded to a variety of situations and needs role-played by the volunteer actors.
Jenkins said the exercise taught the county some valuable lessons.
“One of the things we did learn today is that our timelines aren’t realistic. To move large amounts of people, we need to allow ourselves more time, and we really need to streamline some of our processes so we don’t get bogged down,” Jenkins said.
Jackson said the county will use the assessment report from the exercise to review its emergency plan and make changes to correct any deficiencies.