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Area public works crews descend upon Homewood for disaster drill

An imaginary microburst storm hit Homewood on Thursday, Oct. 26, downing trees and making main thoroughfares impassable. Luckily, it was a test and only a test for public works officials. The storm events served as the scenario for the first major disaster drill sponsored by the Suburban Public Works Directors Association.

  From left, Jay Johnson, deputy director of public
  works in South Holland, listens to Joe Mancini,
  public works fleet manager in Homewood. The 
  group was part of a disaster drill Oct. 26 that 
  involved public works crews from 15 are 
  communities.
(Photo provided by Homewood 
  Public Works Department)
 

An imaginary microburst storm hit Homewood on Thursday, Oct. 26, downing trees and making main thoroughfares impassable.

Luckily, it was a test and only a test for public works officials. The storm events served as the scenario for the first major disaster drill sponsored by the Suburban Public Works Directors Association.

The organization, formed just a few years ago, provides mutual aid service to 35 member communities in the South Suburbs.

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At 7:30 a.m., Homewood Assistant Public Works Director Dave Ebert made a call to E-Com, the local emergency dispatch center, to report the storm damage and initiate a request for mutual aid. He declared it a Level 1 disaster.

Later, while surveying the “damage,” Ebert noted the situation was worse than initially thought. Major thoroughfares were impassable. He elevated the disaster assessment to Level 2.

Eventually, public works crews from 15 area municipalities responded to the call for help. Ebert said more than 30 pieces of equipment arrived, and more than 50 people got to work going through the processes they would if there really had been numerous trees down.

St. Joseph Catholic Church’s parking lot served as the main staging area as vehicles from other towns arrived. From there, crews were sent to address storm damage problems around Homewood.

After the response part of the drill concluded, a review session was held to assess how the system worked and to identify problems.

“The purpose of the drill was to get the participating departments familiar with the mutual aid call-out process and procedures,” Flossmoor Public Works Director John Brunke said. “Overall, the drill went very well.”

Ebert said the drill was deemed a success, not because it was problem-free, but because it demonstrated that the departments worked well together and it illuminated problems the organization could address.

He said the tasks in the drill were the kinds of things public works crews do routinely. The difference was the scale of the event and the need for a number of departments to coordinate efforts.

Some problems encountered during the drill were things that are difficult to anticipate in planning but became evident in practice. For example, two coordinators found they couldn’t reach each other all the time because each only had one phone and occasionally were in calls with someone else. Ebert said the planners already discussed several options for solving that problem.

“This is the only way you learn,” he said.

As a result of the drill, Ebert said the organization’s departments are better prepared to respond to a real disaster.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” he said.

In addition to Homewood and Flossmoor, Cook County Homeland Security and Emergency Management and public works departments from Matteson, South Holland, Dolton, Glenwood, Alsip, Lynwood, Country Club Hills, Orland Park, Tinley Park, Park Forest, University Park and Oak Forest participated in the drill.

SPWDA represents 35 south suburban communities and was founded in 2009, incorporated in 2010. John Schaefer from Homewood is the president, John Brunke from Flossmoor is the second vice president and Richard Rinchich from Oak Forest is the secretary. Lisa Syren from Homewood is the administrative assistant.


Tom Houlihan contributed information to this story.

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