The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.
May 20—PANAMA CITY — Bay County’s first responders have kicked off a preparedness exercise this week for the upcoming June 1 start of hurricane season.
Bay County Emergency Medical Services, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and firefighters are simulating what they would do if Bay County faced another hurricane.
The first responders gathered at the Bay County Emergency Operations Center to start the exercise. After a briefing Monday, on Tuesday they started simulating what they would do if a Category 2 hurricane was on track to hit the west side of the county.
They talked about how they would evacuate people in flood zones because the storm would hit the Panama City Beach area.
Brad Monroe, chief of Bay County Emergency Medical Services, said most people are killed by water rather than wind during a hurricane. He said that’s why it is important for first responders to have a good plan and evacuate people early.
They also talked about what they learned from Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018 and implemented some of the changes to be better prepared the next time. Communications was one thing the county had to look at improving and one upgrade was implementing a “red phone” that uses satellites to contact the state’s EOC or Washington, D.C.
Monroe said storms like Michael are why the county must stay prepared.
“We know that hurricanes like Hurricane Michael were actually just tropical storms just three days before they hit the mainland and that’s actually the history of Category 5 storms in this country,” he said. “This helps get prepared for that situation.”
Next door to the Bay County EOC, the BCSO has its Incident Management Team (IMT) set up. IMT was a direct result of the Briarwood Apartments active shooter incident in Panama City three years ago and Hurricane Michael.
IMT was set up jointly with Bay County EMS and the BCSO and it has helped both agencies. They had worked together before, but IMT improved the cooperation.
Where IMT is located, there are a couple of BCSO trailer-like vehicles that have computers that monitor everything happening in the county as well as the “red phone” to contact agencies outside Bay County if phone lines go down. There are even a couple of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers for living quarters.
Sheriff Tommy Ford said he thinks the IMT is unique in Florida. The Incident Command Center, the hub for the IMT, is important for storm response.
“It’s a joint effort between Bay County Emergency Services and the sheriff’s office in that we jointly purchased this Incident Command Center,” Ford said. “With the Incident Command Center, myself, the police chiefs, fire chiefs who are making decisions for these other entities out in the field, we need this Incident Management Team on the back end helping us plan and communicate.”
County Commissioner Tommy Hamm attended Tuesday’s session to check out the exercise for himself. He said it’s like practicing and getting ready for game day because it’s not if a hurricane is coming, but when.
Hamm also said it’s good for Bay County officials to be prepared to assist surrounding counties that helped after Hurricane Michael.
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