The Ottumwa Courier

April 18, 2013

Lessons from loss: Emergency workers plan to study Boston closely

By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — OTTUMWA — Just about every time there’s a tragedy like the bombing in Boston, disaster response workers learn something to improve the safety of our area.

"It's unfortunate that it takes something like the bombing in Boston," said Josh Stevens, emergency management coordinator for Wapello County. "[Yet] when something happens outside of Ottumwa, it causes folks both public and private to go back and review their plans."

It's a necessity, say the experts. As violent criminals adapt new methods, emergency workers must too. For years, announcements in airports and other gathering places asked passengers to report unattended packages. The public responded. So now, dropping an item in the trash may have become a more workable method of “hiding” a bomb.

“The reality of this is in no society are you going to completely get rid of someone doing something radical," said Jerry Calnon, emergency management coordinator for Van Buren and Jefferson counties. "You can’t stop that. All you can do is try to control the environment to minimize [the damage]."

"Training is a great opportunity to mitigate these kind of incidents," said Stevens.

And how they train is based on how things occur in real life.

"We definitely try to turn every incident that happens into a learning tool," said Stevens. "But we wait for the after-report, the debriefing. 'This is one of the problems we had,' or they'll say 'This is one of the things we did really well.'"

The secure Homeland Security site is one of those places responders can go to gather information for planning.

"Why make the same mistake someone else made?" Stevens said.

For example, in 2009, Wapello County discovered that adding 15,000 people on bikes to a population of 30,000 is going to make communication by cell phone very difficult. Officers or first responders on foot would need to have a second way of communicating than texting or making cell phone calls. So that's one of the less tragic but "real-life examples" Stevens said he is sharing with RAGBRAI organizers in Pella and Oskaloosa.

In fact, when Calnon was watching events unfold in Boston, he began thinking about RAGBRAI.

“It’s going through my mind, what can we do to protect thousands of riders,” he said about the bike event, which will be rolling through both of his counties in just months.

One thing he might recommend is checking trash cans, something that is actually done on a small scale now. He said he believes the Boston sanitation department went through and emptied all the trash cans along the race route before the runners started. But maybe emergency planners and other public safety officials have to take a look during an event, too.

“Anybody could have walked along and dropped [a backpack bomb] into [that trash can], and people right next to them probably would not have noticed,” Calnon said. “In our open society, no one looks at what someone else is throwing in a trash can.”

There are a multitude of precautions public safety officials put in place at large events. Boston can be studied to gain another scenario to watch out for.

“We can look at that as emergency coordinators and other responders and say, ‘OK, if we have an event like that, perhaps we are going to make sure we check trash cans right before [the crowd arrives].'”