Sunday, November 19, 2000

Gas cut-off got pro response

Fire chief expert in quick coordination

By Terry Flynn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEWPORT — Fire Chief Larry Atwell remembers seeing a group of Cinergy officials huddled over the hood of a vehicle, studying a map, when he responded to the corner of 11th and Saratoga the morning of Oct. 5.

        He already knew the city faced a sustained problem affecting a great many residents because of an early morning gas line and water main break, and that meant putting his training in the federal Incident Command System to work.

[photo] When an 8-inch gas main broke Oct. 5, Newport's fire chief mobilized an emergency response team with its own headquarters and chain of command.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        “The first thing we did was move Cinergy and other emergency personnel into the firehouse (at 10th and Monmouth) and established a command center there,” said Mr. Atwell, who has been Newport's fire chief since 1987. He spent 28 years before that with the Louisville Fire Department.

        As Cinergy evaluated the scope of the problem, which resulted in loss of natural gas to 3,708 services, Incident Command procedures were established. The nucleus of the command was assembled at 10 a.m. Oct. 5 in City Manager Phil Ciafardini's office in the city building next to the firehouse.

        “We had a group making decisions, with everything coordinated through the joint command,” Mr. Atwell said. “Ciafardini was incident commander and I served as operations commander and planning officer.”

        Campbell County Emergency Management Director Ken Knipper, deputy director Ron Schneider and various city department heads including Police Chief Tom Fromme and Water Works Director Frank Peluso were directly involved in the command center operations.

        By the time gas service had been restored to virtually all affected residents, over a period of two weeks,

        Mr. Ciafardini said it became clear that the direction taken by officials that first day set the theme for keeping the incident from getting out of hand.

        “The chief (Atwell) was on top of things immediately and set procedures in motion to keep ahead of the problem and prevent any bottlenecks of personnel,” Mr. Ciafardini said recently.

        Mr. Atwell has been teaching classes in the Incident Command System to handle disasters for about 20 years, both at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., and to Northern Kentucky fire departments through Northern Kentucky Technical College.

        “I learned the system at the National Fire Academy and then was asked to teach there while I was with the Louisville department,” he said. “When I came here in 1987 one of my first goals was to set up an Incident Command System in Northern Ken tucky. I presented the idea to virtually every department in the area, and everyone bought into it.”

        Although Mr. Atwell had been involved in disaster situations in Louisville where his incident command expertise was successfully used, this was the first time a full-scale crisis scenario created the need to bring various forces together.

        “I think overall everything worked very well,” he said. “Cinergy did an outstanding job and fit in well with the incident command plan. I had no worries about using personnel from neighboring fire departments because they were all familiar with incident command.”

        In a 17-page incident report released recently by Campbell County Emergency Management, the entire gas/water problem was broken down day-by-day, showing how the various public- and private-sector teams worked together to clear water from gas lines and to restore gas service as quickly as possible.

        The first shelter was opened Oct. 7 at the Wilder city building, and was closed on Oct. 8 when a new shelter was opened at Newport High School. The high school shelter closed Oct. 9 when it was determined no one was requesting an overnight stay or food, although five people did come to the high school to take showers.

        “When you look back on something like this, there are always things you can improve upon,” Mr. Atwell said. “The one thing I think about is we probably should have opened up a shelter sooner. Although we didn't have any calls for the shelter, it could have been available sooner.”

        The other facet of the incident for which the chief is grateful is the lack of any life-threatening situations.

        “It was a crisis, of course, but not a life-threatening situation,” he said. “As we went about our tasks, we all knew that we were not under pressure to save lives. That helped a lot.”

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