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Assessment of emergency response to tornado months away

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2011 - An evaluation of the emergency response to the Friday, April 22, tornadoes will not happen any time soon. After any disaster, emergency officials meet to discuss what went wrong and what went right, and how to apply those lessons to future situations.

But in this case, the destruction was so vast, that it could be summer before a post-mortem meeting can take place, according to Nick Gragnani, executive director of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System.

"We're moving into recovery but we'll still be in response mode for at least a month so a meeting like that is probably months away," Gragnani said.

It's already known that a major flaw in St. Louis County's ability to respond to this recent emergency and all disasters is its outdated radio communications system. The E-911 bill that passed last year will fund new equipment, but the switch won't happen until 2013.

Once that's in place, according to Gragnani, the St. Louis area will be in good shape when it comes to disaster response. Many improvements are already in place, including a new hospital coordination strategy called St. Louis Medical Operations Center, or SMOC.

Recent SMOC tactics were carried out flawlessly by representatives of various hospitals last Friday, Gragnani said. As soon as the warnings sounded, SMOC responders headed for the St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center to begin a roll call of hospitals: which of them, if any, sustained damage? What kind of supplies do they have? How many beds are available?

While officials expected injuries to number in the hundreds or even thousands, it turned out that only 15 people in St. Louis County were hurt in the tornadoes. But the incident still showed that the SMOC training paid off.

"Things kicked in automatically without anybody saying, 'Hello? You need to get moving," Gragnani said. "They actually did it out of gut response."

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When radio communications jammed during Friday night's tornado, area rescue workers relied on a much larger piece of equipment: a helicopter.

After the tornado blasted through Bridgeton, some 800 emergency dispatch calls locked up St. Louis County's 1950s-era radio communications system. As a result, first responders from the Pattonville Fire District were, at critical times, out of the loop.

With no current information coming in by radio, a decision was made to check out the situation from a bird's-eye view. Surveying the area from a county helicopter finally revealed the scope of the damage; but by then, it had been 40 minutes since the tornado struck, according to Battalion Chief Jim Usry.

"We were literally blind until we got that helicopter up into the air," Usry said.

Improved Communications Two Years Away

The aging radio communications system, scheduled to be replaced by 2013 following the November 2009 approval of Proposition E-911, also greatly hampered the ability of St. Louis County rescue workers to talk with others from different communities.

St. Charles, Jefferson, Madison and St. Clair counties and the city of St. Louis all upgraded their radio communications before 2009 and communicate with each other. But St. Louis County still has a mash-up of systems cobbled together by its 92 different municipalities, 42 fire districts and 51 police departments.

"We are an island in the middle of counties that are implementing this type of system," Skip Mange, a former St. Louis County councilman, told the Beacon in the 2009 investigative series, "Ready -- or Not? Can St. Louis Cope with Catastrophe?" Mange pushed for passage of E-911.

Because the new system -- funded by a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax -- was not in place Friday night, search and rescue workers duplicated efforts, combing areas of destruction that had already been searched.

"First responders from many different organizations and the highway patrol were all on their own radio channels and we couldn't find out where they needed us and what was going on," Usry said.

Still, Usry is extremely grateful for the help that poured in from Jefferson, Franklin and St. Charles counties as well as St. Louis and parts of Illinois. Despite being handicapped by poor communications, the disparate responders worked well together, Usry said. He's relieved that a bad situation didn't become even worse.

"It was just a miracle that we didn't have one fatality," Usry said.

Rescue Begins At Home

For Usry, the tornado resulted in a personal close call as well as a professional rescue mission. While out to dinner with his wife, Connie, Friday night, four of their Brady-Bunch brood of nine were back at the house in Bridgeton. It was from them that he got word of the tornado.

The couple raced home to find roof damage and uprooted trees, but their kids were safe.

"They did a great job. They went to the basement and did everything we've been practicing for a lifetime," Usry said.

A friend dropped off a generator so the family could stay in their home. But Usry barely had time to count his blessings.

"I made sure our home was secured, kissed my wife, and went to work," he said.

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