As they watch and wait, SC emergency managers braced for a winter weather all-nighter

jself@thestate.comJanuary 29, 2014 

Only Horry County was coded red for “OPCON 1” on a map of South Carolina displayed on a giant wide screen in the S.C. Emergency Management Division command center in Pine Ridge on Tuesday afternoon.

That meant that Horry County’s “operational condition” had reached the most-active level – as Horry emergency personnel signaled they were expecting to bear the brunt of winter weather moving across the state, said S.C. Emergency Management Division director Kim Stenson.

Video feed from four traffic cameras and other traffic and weather details flanked the map, depicting the same gray, dreary, slightly wet scenes of light traffic, but no signs of snow as 4 p.m. rolled around.

“A lot of emergency management is this – watching and waiting,” said Mike Russell, Emergency Management’s chief of operations.

Below the monitoring screen’s bluish glow were about two-dozen employees of Emergency Management and other state agencies who were ready to pull all-nighters, sitting behind computers with maps and charts, lounging in chairs, or clustered in offices flanking the emergency operations floor.

Represented were officials from the state’s Departments of Transportation, Public Safety, Natural Resources, Social Services, Health and Environmental Control, the S.C. National Guard, Law Enforcement Division and Office of Regulatory Staff, which communicates with the power utilities to track outages.

News of sleet around the state was starting to come in, said Emergency Management spokesman Derrec Becker.

The center’s chatter focused mostly on emergency management shop talk – figuring out how to display different data feeds on the monitoring screen, for example – and what was for dinner.

But if any of the state agencies or 46 county emergency management teams called for assistance in responding to an emergency, the command center would swing into action, following plans developed and tested in the days when staffers were not responding to actual emergency events.

Social Services could set up emergency shelters, health officials could transport patients in need of emergency care, and the National Guard could wench vehicles out of ditches along the highway. Emergency Management could connect resources with those who needed them.

Director Stenson said that the state’s emergency response efforts extend far beyond what goes on at the emergency operations center, driven largely by state agencies and county emergency teams: “This is the tip of the iceberg, what you see right here.”

When major emergency events occur – a hurricane, for example – the room fills up with about 150 people representing the coming together of about 60 federal, state and local agencies, Stenson said.

The team then follows protocol for responding to emergencies developed and practiced in the time between the actual events, said Joe Farmer, an Emergency Management spokesman who has spent many a night monitoring weather systems with Stenson at the emergency operations center.

At those times, Farmer said, the center is “SRO, standing room only.”

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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