O'Fallon Progress

‘It can happen here’ is mindset behind O’Fallon’s emergency planning

A firefighter works to put out the blaze at Peel Wood Fired Pizza in April of 2016 in O'Fallon.
A firefighter works to put out the blaze at Peel Wood Fired Pizza in April of 2016 in O'Fallon. snagy@bnd.com

In the first month of 2018, 11 school shootings occurred in the U.S.

Last year alone, there were more than 300 mass shootings around the country.

Natural disasters caused billions of dollars of damage in 2017, including tornadoes, floods, blizzards, hurricanes and wildfires.

“We can no longer think it can’t happen here,” that’s the message that Eric Van Hook, O’Fallon Director of Public Safety, always stresses to city and school officials.

Van Hook, Fire Chief Brent Saunders and Jim Cavins, director of patrol operations for the O’Fallon Police Department, gave a presentation to O’Fallon aldermen on the city’s current Disaster Plan during a Committee of the Whole meeting Monday, Jan. 30.

“We really want to get on top of it,” Van Hook said. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

O’Fallon has policies in place and procedures to follow in the event of a natural disaster, such as a tornado, or a man-made disaster, such as a mass shooting or terrorist attack. Cavins said a local problems can escalate into a disaster, such as water main breaks.

“A disaster is really anything that can have a costly effect on the citizens,” Cavins said.

For the past year and a half, city officials have worked closely with other agencies on emergency strategies in response to and recovery from disasters. This Crisis Management Team must follow federal and state mandates, and Cavins said he updates the information every six months for the city.

“The plan is to save the maximum amount of lives, have minimum injuries, and preserve functions. The city government is essential, and economic action is important for survival and recovery,” Cavins said.

U.S. directives are spelled out in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act, which provides financial and physical assistance once an emergency has been declared.

The importance of coordinating and cooperating is emphasized. There would be a damage assessment, an action plan, and decisions on who is responding.

“It could be very chaotic,” Cavins said.

“We have key roles taken care of, because city hall can’t shut down,” Van Hook said.

If something occurs, the city would work with the state’s Emergency Management Agency and the St. Clair County EMA. A National Incident Management System is also used. Towns that have a mutual aid agreement with us would be called, too.

“These are valuable resources,” Cavins said.

Tasks are noted, and there is a succession plan in case someone is unavailable, doing another duty. So that is all accounted for and noted. Department heads are trained, or will be, Cavins said.

Van Hook said plans have expanded over the years in reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001. But recently, incidents that law enforcement describes as “soft targets,” such as violence at a concert, stadium, movie theater or shopping mall, anywhere people are gathered, have occurred.

The O’Fallon police have plans for different festivals and parades in the city, too.

They are also vigilant about training at local schools throughout the year.

“We have a great partnership with all of the superintendents, and it’s all about the safety of our students. We want to make sure about the well-being of every child,” Van Hook said.

He said the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado on April 20, 1999, changed how law enforcement does its job.

“We used to wait for the SWAT team. Now, we run to the shots,” he said.

After the nightclub shooting in Orlando, the concert shooting in Las Vegas, and the workplace shooting in San Bernardino, different scenarios have been planned for, and exercises take place.

Van Hook noted that most shooting or bombing incidents are over quickly, but the after-effect is long-lasting.

The chief said one of the biggest challenges is that so many people want to help in times of duress, and just handling the crowds in that regard takes manpower and time.

“There are so many people who want to help. I know that’s a good problem to have. We use the Red Cross and will refer people to them, because we can’t let all the people distract us.”

Mayor Herb Roach commented on how important it was to keep everyone updated with information. He also complimented the city departments.

“We are grateful for your expertise and talent. We are fortunate to have you here. O’Fallon is good to go in case we need it,” he said.

The mayor would be a point person and is the only one who would sign an emergency declaration.

City Administrator Walter Denton also explained how the city would dispense information.

An Emergency Operations Center would also be established, and that would likely be Firehouse No. 4.

If there would be a power outage, plans cover that as well, Cavins said.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital has its own detailed plan, Saunders said, and the city is familiar with it.

“We share our plans with others,” Van Hook said.

Alderman Ross Rosenberg inquired about what aldermen should do, and the team said aldermen should stay available, but don’t rush to wherever the incident is, unless asked.

They can keep residents up to date on their own social media, too, and the city will be keeping the public and the media posted on details.

“We’ll do our best to keep you informed,” Saunders said. “Some information will be just for you.”

Alderman Matthew Gilreath thanked the men for their presentation, noting their institutional knowledge was crucial in the event of an emergency.

“It’s critical that we use our institutional knowledge, because it adds extra value to what we are doing. We must be mentally prepared for reality,” Van Hook said.