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Posted 8/30/2013

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By Scott Clemans
Portland District Public Affairs Office

Many Portland District employees have been involved in a Dam Safety exercise at some point in the past few years. Some exercises simply test a section’s or project’s telephone notification tree. Others may include a “what if?” talk-through of a potential dam failure scenario. Still others might involve forming incident management teams at the operating projects, activating the Emergency Operations Center at district headquarters, and basically doing – or at least simulating – everything including rolling out the bulldozers, pumps and sandbags.


What these exercises haven’t included, though, are the people who would bear the brunt of preparing for and dealing with the effects of an actual dam safety incident – the firefighters, paramedics, police officers, road crews and other emergency responders in downriver communities and counties. But that’s changing this summer.


The District’s Dam Safety and Readiness sections are continuing an aggressive schedule of internal drills, but they are also traveling to the Rogue and Willamette basins and the Columbia Gorge this summer to hold project familiarization sessions and tabletop exercises with local and county emergency managers and responders.


“It’s our job to respond to emergencies at our own dams, but downriver communities need to  understand what we know and do in these situations,” said Matt Chase, who coordinates and leads dam safety exercises in Dam Safety. “That way they’ll have a better idea of how to cooperate with us in an emergency – knowing who to call, what information and assistance they can expect, and what actions they should take to maximize public safety.”


Emergency managers’ knowledge about Corps dams in their area varies widely – several southern Oregon officials didn’t know the location of the Rogue River Basin Project office when invited there for the first meeting – so Chase and Paul Jewell, Readiness Section training and exercise coordinator, are starting with the basics in this first round of meetings.


“We’re giving them an overview of lock and dam project missions and water management operations, as well as our Dam Safety inspection program and emergency response procedures,” said Jewell. “We’re also introducing the new inundation maps, which show what areas downriver might be flooded following a dam failure.”


The new maps show worst-case scenarios, Chase explained, so it’s vital that emergency managers understand the assumptions behind what the maps show, as well as how to read them to identify areas most at risk.


Operating on the “crawl, walk, run” principle, after establishing relationships with county emergency managers and a basic understanding of each others’ capabilities and processes this year, Chase and Jewell plan to hold an increasingly complex series of exercises with our partners in future years.


“Our dams provide many benefits to the people of the Pacific Northwest, but those benefits are always accompanied by some degree of risk,” Chase said. “We want our partners downriver to understand that risk, and be able to work together with us to respond to and minimize the risks that arise in an emergency situation.”

community dam safety exercise prepare readiness