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Tabletop exercise bring earthquake scenario to life

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MASSENA - It’s March 5, 2014, Ash Wednesday, and all is well in Massena - until 7:26 p.m., when an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.4 strikes the community, followed by a series of jolting aftershocks.

Although the scenario was fictional, a tabletop exercise held Friday at the Massena Town Hall provided real-life solutions of how different agencies would respond.

The exercise included representatives from St. Lawrence Gas, the Massena Electric Department, the Massena Police Department and four juniors from the Massena High School Tech Prep program - Reed Chapman, Cassidy Peets, Logan Deshane and Angela Farbotnik. The students came up with the earthquake scenario and on Friday worked with the other agencies to talk about what actions would be taken in the case of an emergency.

Tech Prep teacher Shane Halladay said the students linked up with the Massena Electric Department for this year’s case study.

“We work with them on a yearly basis. Andy (McMahon, MED superintendent) wanted to expand it to other agencies,” he said. “They’ve held weekly meetings to make sure everything is on track and realistic.”

Students are provided with five case studies at the beginning of the year and can pick their top three that they’d like to participate in, Mr. Halladay said. They try to get the students into one of the case studies on their list, he noted.

Mr. Chapman, who also acted as a public information officer to answer media questions after the “earthquake,” said that, once they signed up for their case study, they set meetings to create the scenario. They spent the first three periods each day working on the scenario for a two- or three-week span.

“We would think of what we would do and do research. We’ve been in isolation to focus on this so there were no distractions,” he said.

“We went to the conference room and shut the door,” where they would sit at a table and explore the scenario, Ms. Peets said,

As they added things, she said, they noticed there was nothing about earthquakes, a possibility in Massena, so they decided to address them.

“We researched all the earthquakes and compared different magnitudes. If a power line was damaged, we would ask Mr. McMahon how long it would take to fix,” Ms. Peets said.

With their scenario, the 5.4 magnitude earthquake hit at 7:26 p.m., causing a transformer on Highland Avenue to fall and catch fire. A vast majority of chimneys in the area were also damaged.

A 7:44 p.m. aftershock hit with a magnitude of 5.9, causing the steeple of the Sacred Heart Church, where Ash Wednesday services were be held, to crumble. That severed a power line and caused two poles to collapse onto Main Street.

In addition, another power line fell on Sycamore Street, and there were reports of a strong smell of gas at Westwood and Coventry Drive. There was also sewage discharge by the former Club 37 on Trippany Road, fallen trees on Bowers Street, Nightengale Avenue and other places around the area, and power outages across the town as well as in Louisville.

“There are concerns with the Parker Avenue Bridge possibly being damaged. Small tremors can still be felt through the ground,” Mr. Chapman said.

The participants split into groups to decide how they would tackle the initial incidents, and then reported their recommended actions back to the entire group. Then they had other scenarios added to the mix, meaning more discussions of what actions would be taken.

“There is where we start to throw curves,” said Joseph Gallagher, St. Lawrence Gas. “This is obviously a drill, but we’re going to have fun today. There’s really no such thing as a wrong answer.”

He said, using the tabletop exercise, they were able to test potential actions with all of the major players in the room to get a sense of what each group would be doing in the event of an emergency such as an earthquake.

“It’s a great way to do it,” Mr. Gallagher said.

He went over the incident command system - a chain of command - that would be set up in case of an emergency.

“It’s designed to take multi-jurisdictional agencies with overlapping responsibilities and effectively manage resources. That’s how we mitigate emergencies first - with management. They know their part; everybody knows everybody else’s part,” Mr. Gallagher said.

“It’s critical that we get in the room so we know each other” and can recognize faces if there was an emergency, said Tom Carroll, St. Lawrence Gas.

Mr. Halladay said the Tech Prep program, which has been in existence for 19 years, provides students with real-world experiences and also helps the organizations they partner with.

“The state talks about having programs that make them career- and college-ready. There’s not another program out there like this,” he said.

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