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Cliff Williams / The Outlook Members of the Alexander City Fire Department talk about a variable in the table top exercise Thursday.

More than 50 first responders gathered Thursday making plans for something they hope never happens — disaster.

The model used for Thursday’s table top exercise was the April 2020 storm that struck Tallapoosa County as the COVID-19 pandemic was bearing down on the world. While the situation didn’t put a huge strain on resources, it could have been much worse.

“There was a potential for a disaster within a disaster,” Russell Medical’s director of education, safety and accreditation Misty Anderson told the group. “We were dealing with the pandemic, learning things as it went along but also had to be ready.”

As the straight-line event hit Tallapoosa County Russell Medical made sure that, one, its facility was still operational and, two, its personnel were ready to respond to possible injuries from the storm. The hospital made sure areas where COVID-19 patients were being treated would not contaminate areas where injuries from the storm would happen.

The influx of injuries never hit the hospital as only a few minor injuries occurred. But the county’s two 911 dispatch centers spent hours on the phone.

“The ringing never stopped,” Tallapoosa County chief deputy sheriff David McMichael said. “It’s like an alarm clock ringing that never stopped.”

There was a backlog of calls almost immediately as the storm passed through the area. To combat the backlog, each of the two centers called more dispatchers into work.

Dispatchers are the first people callers to 911 speak to. The backlog of calls are answered in the order they are received so getting through the calls quickly and efficiently is important to determine how to respond.

There are a limited number of responders and delayed responses based on what is going causes issues too

“Everyone’s emergency is a high priority to them,” McMichael said. “As a law enforcement officer responding, you have to understand that.”

McMichael and others at the table top exercise organized by Tallapoosa County Emergency Management Association director Jason Moran said during such times calls with injuries and or entrapment take precedence over calls to a tree down.

The Alexander City Fire Department said it learned a few things as a result of the storm and deputy chief Craig Clark shared with the group.

“We realized it was organized chaos,” Clark said. “We had truck and ambulances in the same areas. What we learned was we needed to have a truck and ambulance in a sector responding to there and not necessarily just to the next call. We found ourselves on top of each other.”

McMichael said a similar thing happened when a tornado came across County Road 34 in April 2011.

“We had law enforcement going door to door about 1 a.m. trying to figure out who was there and wasn’t,” McMichael said. “Volunteers were also doing that but we were duplicating duties. We learned we need to work together in order to be more effective.”

Moran said table top scenarios such as Thursday’s at Central Alabama Community College allow first responders to interact outside of the stressors of a call.

“They get see who might be on the radio at dispatch; they see people from other departments and agencies and learn what they do,” Moran said. “They get to interact in a way they get to know each, their capabilities and can better respond to situations in the future.”

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.

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