County officials to travel to East Coast for tsunami training

clambert@thetribunenews.comApril 4, 2013 

More than two years have passed since county officials received warnings that a tsunami traveling the Pacific would hit the Central Coast, prompting them to active emergency operations centers and evacuate hundreds of residents in low-lying areas.

The threat faded, causing minimal damage in San Luis Obispo County, and life quickly returned to normal.

But for local emergency planning experts, the event “brought it home to us that we need to collaborate more,” said Dave Mathe, emergency planning coordinator for the Five Cities Fire Authority.

Even before the earthquake and tsunami in Japan triggered warnings here, Mathe was already working on plans for a large-scale training course.

Last year, he received a grant from FEMA that will fund airfare and lodging for about 75 local police and fire personnel and city and county officials to attend a weeklong training event at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute on the grounds of the National Fire Academy and United States Fire Administration in Emmitsburg, Md.

A tsunami will be the focus of the training, but Mathe didn’t want to disclose specific details about the exercises. The participating agencies will receive a report a few weeks after the event to review results, which can then be incorporated into future training.

The county’s tsunami response plan was approved in 2005, and was first fully used in March 2011 after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in Japan triggered a massive tsunami and set off warnings along the beaches in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Minimal changes were later made to the county’s response plan, said county Emergency Services Manager Ron Alsop, who will participate in next week’s training.

“The plan worked well,” he said. However, “that demonstrated, as it has with past drills, a need for the coastal jurisdictions and agencies to work together.”

Other attendees include Supervisor Paul Teixeira; Sheriff Ian Parkinson; city officials from Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach; and officials with the Cambria and Oceano community services districts.

“This particular training is set up with local players that will be working together if something happens here,” said Cambria Fire Department Chief Mark Miller, who earned his Fire Service Masters’ degree at the campus. “I’m sure it will be a doozy of a disaster, and it will seem very real, with people playing the roles they will be playing here.”

A few representatives from PG&E and local chambers of commerce will also participate, because partnerships with the private sector are also important during emergencies, Mathe said.

All travel, lodging and training expenses are covered in the grant and will not burden the CCSD and other local agencies, Miller added.

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