County law enforcement readies today for disaster in future years

Members of the District 3 Task Force carry a woman while responding to a domestic dispute, one of multiple scenarios that were presented following the aftermath of an earthquake exercise at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Jennings County. About 300 emergency responders participated in the real-life disaster exercise Sept. 12 through 16. Pictured are (from left) Chief Deputy Chris Newton, of the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department; Mike Sprunger, of the LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department; and Chris Emerick, of the Steuben County Sheriff’s Department. The woman in the photo is an actor.
Members of the District 3 Task Force carry a woman while responding to a domestic dispute, one of multiple scenarios that were presented following the aftermath of an earthquake exercise at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Jennings County. About 300 emergency responders participated in the real-life disaster exercise Sept. 12 through 16. Pictured are (from left) Chief Deputy Chris Newton, of the Huntington County Sheriff’s Department; Mike Sprunger, of the LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department; and Chris Emerick, of the Steuben County Sheriff’s Department. The woman in the photo is an actor. Photo provided.

Originally published Sept. 22, 2016.

Indiana is not necessarily known for its earthquakes, but geologists say there is a 25 to 40 percent chance of a magnitude 6.0 or greater earthquake in the next 50 years for the central United States, including the Hoosier state.

Although an earthquake with a magnitude of at least 3.0 hasn’t happened in this area since 1899, emergency personnel could be called into action in the event of an earthquake in other parts of the state. That’s why Huntington County law enforcement officials joined more than 300 disaster responders from across the state in a full-scale disaster exercise from Sept. 12 through Sept. 16, at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, near North Vernon in Jennings County.

Huntington County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chris Newton says the training facility, which is comprised of a complete town, was the perfect setting in which to simulate all the scenarios that could take place following a major earthquake event.

“It started at 8 o’clock in the morning and we would go to 5 o’clock every night – it would be just like regular workday,” Newton explains. “We would practice staging in particular areas, just like we would in an actual disaster. There is an incident command post that is set up, and for 48 hours all that we would do is treat this town like an actual, live disaster is happening ... From the time you get there, it’s like you actually arrive on the scene of an actual disaster.”

Newton, who is the commander of the state District 3 Task Force, is in charge of mobilizing law enforcement officers in northeast Indiana on special incidents, coordinating efforts so the manpower at a particular agency isn’t depleted. That manpower is comprised of emergency management, fire and EMS elements in addition to law enforcement. The exercise at Muscatatuck called on all the elements to handle the situations presented, using actors as citizens.

“We handled everything from a domestic dispute-abuse – an actual domestic situation going on. We had an active shooter. There’s an actual school there we utilized. They had multiple people – 30 to 40 actors that were there that were playing the part of either a
good guy or a bad guy.

“They gave us scenarios of what could happen in the event that something like this could happen. It pushes people to do different things … or somebody who’s just totally lost everything. What would they do or what extremes would they go?”

The emergency responders dealt with a hostage situation, a protest at the town hall, a bus accident, inmates escaping from jail and even explosions that occurred during the mock earthquake.

“They have these towns, that have all these houses,” Newton adds, “and we had to practice, as a law enforcement element, of how do we go in and locate those people and do it safely, for not only the people that are living there, but also our own guys.”

Newton says the Muscatatuck training was like nothing he has ever experienced before.

“Live, scenario-based training is the single best training opportunity that any of us could have,” he says. “They mentally stressed us, they physically stressed us, they frustrated us – just for that purpose to see how we would handle these situations, in the event that something like this would happen. So there’s a lot of psychological things that they threw at us.”

During the training, Newton struck up a conversation with the “mayor” of the mock town, who was played by John Brown, director and chief planning officer for Division of Planning and Assessment at Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

“He said, ‘I’ve been down here for several weeks, and I’ve been doing these exercises with all these law enforcement elements that’s come here from throughout the state.’ He says, ‘Your law enforcement element and the group of guys that you’ve brought here has done better than anybody,” Newton says. “It just goes to show, that, not just from Huntington County, but when you can get a group of 20-plus law enforcement guys all together, and we’re all in sync, with the type of training and how to handle these types of situations, it just shows you that our training is exceptional.”

John Erickson, public affairs director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, which led the exercise, said full-scale situation training is one of the best ways that Indiana’s emergency personnel can put disaster plans and procedures into practice.

“This intense week allows responders to learn from near real-life experience that will help them better serve Hoosiers in a real-life event. This is as real as it gets without an actual disaster.”

Huntington County EMA Director Lindsie Goss says the exercise benefits Huntington County in several ways.

“It’s a chance to work with our partners, and our counter-partners statewide, so when we collaborate on an exercise, it helps better prepare us for the real world response, should we need to,” she says. “Hopefully we never have to do that. But should we need to respond in a statewide fashion, we’ll be able to work together pretty easily, because we’ll know names and faces.”

The New Madrid seismic zone has the potential to threaten eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Mississippi. More information is available from the Indiana Geological Survey (Indiana University) at https://igs.indiana.edu/Earthquakes/Risk.cfm#gsc.tab=0 and a fault line map can be accessed at http://earthquake.usgs.gov/hazards/qfaults/map/#qfaults.