September was Emergency Preparedness Month. And so far, 2020 has been a less-active year weather-wise and the coronavirus crisis has impacted emergency preparedness.
“With COVID, we have not been as busy,” said West Columbia Police Chief Dennis Tyndall. When officers do respond they follow all COVID safety procedures, including mask-wearing and sanitizing their hands often.
Tyndall said more people stayed busy at home upon the outbreak of the coronavirus in March, and there were fewer emergency situations for part of the year. Then there’s the weather.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate in regard to weather emergencies this year,” said Tyndall. He said there have been forecasts for severe storms, but there has not been as much flooding despite the predictions.
Going back to the Flood of 2015, there have been weather events in West Columbia that have triggered an emergency response from city personnel. In 2017 there was Tropical Storm Irma. Hurricane Matthew hit the area in 2016. Both resulted in an emergency response.
There is still a month left in the hurricane season, but Tyndall said he is thankful there have been no major incidents to date, but heavy rain, wind, and snow are always a threat.
West Columbia Fire Chief Chris Smith echoed Tyndall’s sentiment, but he said the year has not been totally uneventful for fire crews.
“Fortunately we have been affected by fewer hurricanes this year than in the last few years,” said Smith. “We have had a few events caused by seasonal storms that did cause the river to rise for a short period, but nothing that significantly affected our response.”
Smith also said some trees were taken down by storms that caused some minor flooding on a few streets in West Columbia.
Marquis Solomon is the West Columbia Fire Department’s Assistant Chief. He also said 2020 has been a unique year as it relates to emergency response, because of COVID-19.
Solomon said from March to June, when coronavirus mandates curtailed public activity, the number of emergency responses for the fire department decreased.
“The number of calls dropped in the first three or four months of the coronavirus. People were staying at home and there was a reduction in traffic,” Solomon said. “But the call volume has returned, lately.”
Solomon also said the coronavirus has changed the way first responders conduct operations.
“All fire department personnel wear masks to protect citizens,” said Solomon, “in dealing with the public.”
Like Tyndall and Smith, Solomon acknowledged that 2020 has had fewer weather emergencies so far. But he said the fire department is prepared.
“Swift Water Rescue technicians are specially trained and certified,” said Solomon, and ready for emergency situations.
Should an emergency occur, the city’s staff transitions from its normal operating schedule to response mode. In those situations the City of West Columbia’s staff comes together to communicate the steps required to ensure the safety and well-being of the residents, visitors, and city employees, who may have to go out in an emergency situation. Emergency operations personnel meet to form a plan if there is a threat.
Tyndall said procedures are put into place that allow first responders the means to communicate in the event of cell service disruptions and power outages. Patrolling police officers are on the ground to identify events like fallen trees and standing water. West Columbia’s Public Works Director Jamie Hook is part of the loop.
In addition to first responders, other city departments are on alert. The finance department has to plan to make emergency funds accessible in case emergency purchases need to be made.
The GIS Department is also on call to create and update maps to let the public know of road closures. The city’s public information personnel then shares that information with the media, on the city’s website, and with social media.
Another emergency-related function of the West Columbia Fire Department is fire response. Solomon said in the fall, when clocks are turned back, it’s traditional to remind residents to change the batteries in home smoke alarms.
Regardless of the year, and the situation, West Columbia staff is well-trained and experienced in dealing with emergencies. And that should give its residents a degree of comfort.