“You don’t want to be exchanging business cards for the first time during disaster management,” said Lt. Col. Matt Devivo, public affairs officer for the N.C. Guard.
Motorists and pedestrians in Haywood County on Saturday, June 10, should avoid Champion Drive in Canton, where roadblocks will be set up from before 7 a.m. until late afternoon due to one phase of “Operation Vigilant Catamount,” a joint multi-county mock-disaster across Western North Carolina from June 6 to 14.
Devivo said similar exercises will be conducted in other locations across the region during that time and will include “dozens of local, state and federal disaster response agencies” including unspecified U.S. Air Force assets from Seymour Johnson Air Base in Goldsboro.
Details about the precise nature of the event are being withheld due to what Devivo says are operational security concerns, but Canton’s role in the exercise is to serve as the scene of some sort of chemical spill incident at Evergreen Packaging.
Haywood County Emergency Services Coordinator Greg Shuping stressed that the public should interpret the exercise as evidence of neither security weaknesses at nor increased threats to Evergreen.
“Evergreen Packaging is a partner in this drill, although the exercise is not on their property, and is not the reason for us having this drill,” he said.
“Other than the mill, we’re going to be the first point of contact,” said Canton Town Manager Jason Burrell. “The idea is to look at how we respond to emergency situations.”
Fire department personnel from Center Pigeon, Clyde and Junaluska will support the North Canton Fire Department in the exercise.
“Those are the four agencies that would get called if this were to occur,” said Shuping. “Law enforcement likewise — the Canton Police Department will be supported by the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, the Clyde Police Department, the N.C Highway Patrol and the N.C. Department of Transportation, because those are the agencies that they would work with. We wanted this to be real and plausible.”
Also included, according to Shuping, are the Haywood County EMS, Rescue Squad and Incident Management Team — an unassuming but important group of professionals and volunteers who fill logistical, communications, planning, public information and safety roles during major incidents.
“We’re a group of folks of various disciplines,” Shuping said. “There are nurses from the health department there that are on the team, folks from the private sector and volunteers that are not even in emergency services like Allen Newland, for example.”
Newland is a Haywood County drone operator and photographer who does everything from photography for newspapers and Realtors to search and rescue work for the county.
Other responders will include not only traditional vehicles to which citizens are quite accustomed — like police cars and ambulances — but also military apparatus.
“People should not be concerned if they see a large number of responders and their vehicles,” said Haywood County Administrator/ Program Evaluator Dona Stewart.
In designing the training exercise, all involved took “a lot of care” to ensure that there will be no disruption to citizens, Stewart said.
Champion Drive will be closed from Blackwell Drive to Bridge Street early Saturday morning, and will not reopen until possibly 3 or 4 p.m.
Additionally, some vehicles and equipment will be staged in the parking lot of the Canton municipal building on Park Street; passersby may witness vehicles travelling between the parking lot and the scene of the incident, but as far as disruptions to daily life go, that’s about it.
Any sirens, Shuping said, would be related to real incidents not part of Operation Vigilant Catamount.
“We are not using any sirens — either fixed or mobile — as part of the exercise,” he said. “We would never do that.”
Stewart added that they didn’t want the public to be in a position of trying to determine what was real, and what was not; neither gunfire nor explosions will be part of the event.
Burrell said he’s excited about the learning opportunity Operation Vigilant Catamount will bring to his employees and staff.
“It’s always a good ‘gut check’ to do these kind of exercises,” he said. “We get to analyze and review how well we are currently prepared and also get to identify any deficiencies in our response procedures and/or issues with communication amongst all the agencies in the county and state if something like this were to happen.”
Indeed, the exercise will put lots of locals through an experience many departments will never have to deal with — making them more likely to perform better in an emergency situation, wherever their future careers may take them.
“I think it’ll be a good learning tool for us and every other agency involved,” said Burrell. “I don’t really foresee any major deficiencies within our system of communication, but at the same time, there’s always an opportunity to learn from an exercise like this. It also keeps at the forefront of your mind, as you go about your day-to-day activities, that something like this is something you can relate back to when you’re planning for the future — whether by capital expenses, communication equipment, that sort of thing.”
Canton’s gut check will also draw on the resources of town and county administration.
“I think the biggest thing we’re going to gain on the ground is being able to train side-by-side with the people that we would be working with in the event of a larger scale incident,” Stewart said.
The incident will involve a mock “press briefing” the morning of the event, designed to evaluate how the agencies responsible for responding to the incident interact with the media as well as the public during the dissemination of information that may be important during a crisis, such as shelter-in-place directives or evacuation orders.
Best of all, the exercise comes at practically no cost to Haywood County taxpayers.
“The only cost would be the use of equipment as well as any staff that may not be volunteer,” Shuping said. “And we do have some staff time in the county and the Town of Canton, of course, but the military is paying for any artificial props that might be used to help with the reality of the simulation, so if there’s smoke that appears, or some vehicles are used as part of the scenario, or props, they’re not ours.”
Stewart says the exercise is win-win — for the county and for the N.C. Guard — and that the county is grateful for the public’s interest.
“We appreciate their support and understanding,” she said. “It really helps us get better prepared to be able to assist.”