By Sarah Vogelsong
Emergency management procedures put in place before the fatal hot-air balloon crash of May 9 helped county responders handle the situation as it unfolded while also highlighting weaknesses in the county’s emergency response systems, Fire and EMS Chief Jason Loftus told the Board of Supervisors at their last meeting.
Both the Caroline County Emergency Operations Plan and the proffers that the county has proposed be put in place for Meadow Event Park, the location of the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival, proved invaluable for responders, said Loftus.
The local government is not granted a significant level of supervision over events at Meadow Event Park under the current proffers. However, the new proffers that have been drafted and will come before the Board of Supervisors June 10 allow the county to exercise some oversight over what goes on at the property, including involvement in planning for emergency situations.
Prior to the Balloon Festival, the Farm Bureau, which owns Meadow Event Park, and the county agreed to test out the new proffers.
“(The owners) were in favor of having local officials be involved in the planning process,” Loftus said in a phone conversation.
As part of the agreed-upon emergency procedures, the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Fire-Rescue and the Virginia State Police conferenced with the Balloon Pilots Association and participated in an in-service prior to the event in order to evaluate and understand the possible risks.
“It’s really because of those proffers,” Loftus told the Board at the May 27 meeting. “Otherwise, we really wouldn’t have known what was going down that day, and we really wouldn’t have (had) a say in some of the planning elements and ensure those things were done.”
The proffers also provided for the establishment of a Joint Emergency Operations Center that brought together individuals from the Sheriff’s Office, Fire and Rescue, VSP and Meadow Event Park, which later facilitated response coordination.
An out-brief prepared for the Board of Supervisors listed 23 responding agencies that assisted in the search and rescue operations, a number that highlights the degree of coordination required.
“Without those proffers, we would not have established the relationships, had the planning that we did, had the presence down there at Meadow Event,” said Loftus. “I can’t say enough for those. That is truly key.”
In a phone conversation Loftus said, “From a public safety standpoint, we tried (the proffers) out, and we can endorse them 100 percent. . . . Our planning really paid off.”
The proffers will be brought before the Board of Supervisors June 10.
The Caroline County Emergency Operations Plan also assisted responders by identifying who would be in charge. For the first 10 hours after the event, the Caroline Department of Fire-Rescue assumed command over the rescue efforts. When the operation transitioned from rescue to search, the Sheriff’s Office took over.
“We had a national event that was truly managed locally,” said Loftus.
The report provided by the chief to the Board of Supervisors also identified weaknesses in the county’s emergency response systems, with the largest being the radio system.
“Our radio system was inadequate,” said Loftus. “We were down to cell phones.” This inadequacy drove the decision by Fire-EMS to set up the command post for the search and rescue operations in Caroline Pines subdivision instead of Meadow Event Park, where both portable and mobile communication capability would have been lost.
In May 2013 the Board of Supervisors voted to direct county staff to negotiate a contract with Motorola for a new public safety radio system, for which the county has borrowed $6.6 million. The upgraded system is expected to significantly increase coverage and operability throughout the county, which will substantially aid emergency responders in carrying out their jobs.
At last week’s May 27 meeting Chief Loftus thanked the Board for voting for the new system.
He also highlighted the need for specialized response equipment, noting that the Caroline Fire Department had to borrow another department’s four-wheel-drive Gator vehicle to transport accident victims from the woods as well as transport responders into the woods.
The consent agenda for the May 27 meeting included an item that would authorize the reinvestment of proceeds from the sale of property declared surplus in the Department of Fire and Rescue to allow the department to meet its equipment needs. Loftus expressed the department’s wish to purchase a specialized piece of equipment that Fire and EMS could use in the county’s densely wooded areas.
The Board unanimously approved the consent agenda.