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When Scott Keim assumed his new duties as Louisa County, VA, Fire & EMS chief on July 25, 2011, he did not imagine that he would be facing one of the most challenging incidents of his career in less than a month on the job.
On Aug. 23 at 1:51 P.M., a 5.8-magnitude earthquake occurred in Virginia, as recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The epicenter was located five miles south-southwest of the Louisa County community of Mineral. Louisa County is between Charlottesville (29 miles away) and Richmond (38 miles away). The largely suburban/rural county covers 511 square miles and has a population of approximately 33,000.
For a number of reasons, this earthquake was different from those that occur on the West Coast and it sent shockwaves that were felt from as far south as Atlanta, GA, and as far north as Canada. In addition to the significant damage that occurred near the epicenter, there was significant damage in Culpeper. There were also reports of damage to the Washington Monument, among other buildings. The North Anna nuclear power plant is in Louisa County, approximately 10 miles from the epicenter, and automatically went through a shutdown process.
“At first, I thought it might be some sort of explosion, but as the building continued to shake for a significant time, I immediately knew it was an earthquake and moved to a doorway,” Keim said. In the first moments following the earthquake, Keim said, officials began to receive a significant number of calls reporting structural damage. One of the first major causes of concern was a report of structural damage at Louisa County High School, where classes were already in session. The first action was to assess the Louisa Fire-EMS and County Administration building. Once the building was determined to be safe, the Emergency Operations Center was activated.
Keim found communications an immediate challenge. “During the busiest time following the earthquake and when we needed communications the most, we could not depend on commercial wireless networks,” he said. “Additionally, with only two County LMR operating channels, a dedicated broadband network would have greatly enhanced our emergency operations. The need for a dedicated nationwide public safety broadband network is absolutely necessary if we are going to be able to communicate under the most extreme situations like the earthquake we just experienced in Virginia. A dedicated nationwide public safety broadband network is the only way that Louisa and other rural areas will ever realize this possibility.”
One Louisa Fire-EMS land mobile radio (LMR) would be dedicated to Mineral and the high school, leaving only one LMR channel to handle all of the emergency traffic for Louisa County. Communications were also challenged as some mutual aid responders and inspectors’ radio equipment from other localities was not interoperable with Louisa County.
Having only one protocol for “building collapse” created a problem early on as Louisa County fire-rescue resources were quickly overwhelmed by the large number and wide array of structural damage reports. A decision was made to dispatch units to only those reports where building damage involved injuries or entrapment. Louisa Fire-EMS received more than 800 reports of building damage, of which approximately 600 have been made by assessment teams.
The assessment process required inspectors from other localities and organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and others to assist. This becomes a huge logistical challenge that requires a significant effort of coordination. Louisa County’s Geographic Information System was an important tool that provided a geospatial visualization (map) of the earthquake damage. The mapping showed that the first reported damage occurred about a half-mile from the epicenter and it ran in a unique line.