RACHEL C. DOVE
WILLIAMSON - At approximately 10 a.m. Saturday morning, Mingo County 911 dropped the emergency tones for the Williamson Fire Department (WFD) and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel to respond to a report of a structure fire inside the Mingo Manor high-rise on Fourth Avenue.
Fortunately, the firefighters found themselves responding to a planned drill exercise rather than a true emergency.
The WFD responded with three trucks and 11 firefighters, and a mutual-aid request for the Chattaroy Volunteer Fire Department was issued, just as it would be if the Manor were truly in an emergency state. Chattaroy Chief Joe Rumore responded with eight firefighters that worked alongside those from Williamson in a unified manner as they completed all the necessary steps and procedures they would be required to take to extinguish a fire, perform search and rescue and a successful evacuation of the tenants.
Pauline Sturgill, Executive Director of the Williamson Redevelopment Authority has hit the ground running since accepting the position a few short weeks ago. The safety and welfare of the tenants of the high-rise and other public housing that Sturgill oversees was her top priority.
After voicing her concerns to WFD Chief Jerry Mounts, plans were put in place to conduct an emergency drill with the residents of the nine-floor building that would educate not only them, but would also greatly benefit the fireman and EMS workers that would be responding should a true emergency arise.
One of Sturgill’s main concerns was the residents that are handicapped and non-ambulatory, and those issues were addressed by Mounts who gave the director information on the correct measures that needed to be in place. Several questions were raised about the proper location to evacuate the residents to in a time of emergency, and the chief spoke of different options that Sturgill could consider and pursue, including the basement of the First Baptist Church on Fifth Avenue.
“The church is in a close proximity of the high-rise and could be a shelter in place for the residents, including during a tornado or other serious weather conditions since the basement area would be large enough to accommodate them,” said Mounts.
“If the situation that requires the residents being evacuated is completely contained inside the building, it is fine for them to sit outside at the gazebo area and wait for us to give them the ‘all clear’ to return to their apartments. But if it’s a circumstance that would produce an un-safe environment for them to remain outside, you need to have another location designated in advance to eliminate confusion.
“You need to assign floor captains to oversee the safety and evacuation of the residents on their specified floor that are trained to take charge and be responsible for those tenants reaching the designated location. Have them rehearse the emergency plan so that each and every person understands what to do and where to go,” said the chief.
Sturgill was joined for the drill by Williamson Housing Authority board members Judy Hambrick, Bill Milum and Chairwoman Machelle McCormick, who observed the evacuation of residents and emergency response of the Williamson and Chattaroy Fire Departments, and also had the chance to meet with Mounts and Lt. Joey Carey to discuss how the process went and stated they felt it was an educational experience for all of them.
“It’s comforting to know that steps are being taken to acquaint everyone with what role they need to play, and what steps have to be taken to do this the proper way,” said McCormick. “I think Pauline is doing a great job and this drill shows that her concern lies with the safety of the people who live here.”
Upon arrival at the scene, firefighters quickly accessed the situation and were given the scenario information by Lt. Carey, who acted as site commander. Two man crews entered the building and were given orders to respond to a variety of staged emergency situations such as burn victims, residents who were injured or trapped in their apartments, and also were required to react to a fireman who played the role of one who suffered from smoke-inhalation.
“This exercise was designed to expose potential problems and tax our capabilities to the limit,” said Chief Mounts. “It was a very complex drill that would be tough for a department the size of Huntington to pull off without a hiccup.
“I’m extremely proud of these guys and commend them on the job they performed here today.”
“This was a very good exercise. Training is the key for making anything work,” said Mingo County Emergency Services Director Jarrod Fletcher. “We plan to have another drill in the fall that will involve four departments. The drills assure that all emergency responders are on the same page and work together if a large-scale emergency happens in Mingo County.”
Joe Rumore remarked that participating in the Goodman Manor drill was actually the first time some of his volunteer firefighters had been inside the high-rise, and said it was a great experience for them all.
“We need to train together more often in situations like this one today,” Rumore said. “The more we practice, the better we get.”
Sturgill commented that she was extremely appreciative of Chief Mounts and his quick response to her request for a drill, and said she felt like they had made great strides toward implementing a definite plan of action in the case of an emergency.
“As much as I would love to, I can’t guarantee the personal safety of everyone who lives here,” Sturgill said. “I’ve met with the residents and spoke of how important it is to know what to do in an emergency situation, and to remember what steps to take to exit the building safely should the need arise.
“I’m very pleased with today’s exercise, and we now have a clearer picture of what changes we need to make and what our areas of weaknesses are.”
Lt. Joey Carey explained that the WFD perform these drills at least twice a year, and said they are used as the foundation for planned training exercises.
“We rehash the drills, look at them from all angles and decide on the areas that needs our attention the most,” said Carey. “Our main focus with today’s exercise was to focus on a multi-agency working together in a unified incident command system.
“Today’s event involved search and rescue, fire suppression in a high-rise using stand pipes, rescue by a tower truck, multi E.M.S. agencies performing a secondary search of a very large building and positive pressure ventilation.
“I think all the guys did a really good job, and if this would have been a true emergency I feel we would have been successful,” said Carey.
Iris Gooslin, who resides in the Goodman Manor building, said that she thinks the idea of conducting the drill was a wonderful thing, and remarked that although some residents may have been unhappy about being asked to leave their apartment during the exercise, they all understand it was for their own protection.
“This is exactly what we needed, and I’m pleased that Pauline worked with the fire department to get everything arranged,” said Gooslin. “I live here by choice, not by necessity, and I have dear friends that live here to. We’re like family, and I want all of us to feel safe.”
The Daily News was invited to observe the drill and was granted total access to the staged areas during the training exercise, and this reporter has a new level of respect for the firefighters who risk their lives to save those of others.
Even when you know the “smoke” that fills the corridors and apartments is man-made, it creates a feeling of concern for ones’ safety. You watch as the firefighters run the steps from floor to floor searching for those who require their assistance, and know this is exactly what they do anytime they are needed, and do it willingly, without hesitation.
It brings to life thoughts of the terror so many victims have experienced and felt as they were trapped in a structure that was ablaze; especially if they had no training or knowledge of the steps they must take to escape.
Thanks to the combined efforts of Sturgill, Chief Mounts, Chief Rumore, the firefighters and other EMS who participated in Saturday’s drill, the residents now have a better understanding of what to do if a fire occurred, and can rest easier knowing a plan is in place for Goodman Manor.
The saying that is very common regarding those who are dedicated to fighting fires both professionally and as volunteers states that “firefighters run into a burning building as others are running out”.
A truer statement than this has never been spoken.