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Story Last modified at 8:40 p.m. on Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dealing with disaster: Outages trigger talk of emergency readiness

Alaska Star

A rash of recent power outages in Eagle River has some wondering about the community's capacity to handle an extended emergency, whether it takes the form of a lengthy power outage or a major earthquake.

Assembly member Bill Starr hopes the attention over the outages will spark a conversation about Chugiak-Eagle River's emergency communications and response.

Starr's power went out for hours on Christmas Day along with some 4,600 other Eagle River residents. He said he lost cell phone service within 30 or 45 minutes.

He wondered: What if the disaster at hand was a major earthquake instead? What if phones didn't work and the bridge to Anchorage was out?

Starr, in an interview, said he was surprised how quickly cell service dropped out. He also pointed out that the only emergency operations center in the municipality – a multi-agency hub during emergency response – is in Anchorage.

There were plans for an Eagle River response center in conjunction with the library, Starr said, but administration officials favored just one center in Anchorage.

"That never sat well with Debbie (Ossiander) and myself," he said. "I don't mind one primary but if the bridges go down just how are we going to communicate with the outside world?"

In terms of getting word to the public, municipal and state emergency officials, as well as the Red Cross and other agencies, coordinate their efforts during disasters, said Kelley McGuirk, disaster services director for Red Cross of Alaska.

Asked how emergency officials would communicate with the public, McGuirk said they would make use of radio and television broadcasts, as well as other media, if possible. They would post signs outside shelters, she said.

Municipal emergency officials say that while there is one main physical Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, their ability to maintain communications during a disaster is backed up at multiple locations throughout Chugiak-Eagle River. The EOC is located on E Street.

"The reality is, so much of what an EOC does is coordinate," said Trygve Erickson, the municipal director of wireless communications. "It could be done anywhere."

Along with radio sites at the landfill and Blueberry Ridge up Eagle River Road, the muni is starting construction on a new site at the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department, according to Erickson.

All radio sites have generators with 72 hours of fuel, but they also have about an hour of battery backup in case the generators don't start up immediately and need manual help, Erickson said.

If bridges to Anchorage go out, he said, fuel could be brought in from the Mat-Su. If all bridges go out, helicopters would make deliveries.The muni also has various levels of telephone communications available that are protected by microwave stations.

Starr's experience with his cell phone is not surprising, Erickson said. Cellular sites operate on battery backup only.

"In much of a disaster, cell phone systems even if they have power typically fail because they don't really respond well to overuse, he said. "We know from all kinds of disasters – the AWACS crash, forest fires – systems are up and running but they simply overload. To users, they appear to not be working at all."

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.