190811_EDITORIAL01

A firefighter hoses off hazardous materials suits after a hazmat team leaves the Rock County Courthouse on July 19 in Janesville. The team responded after chemical fumes were mistakenly released at the courthouse and the building was evacuated.

The county’s assessment of its response to a chemical incident at the Rock County Courthouse last month revealed a surprising lack of readiness.

In an odd way, the July 19 evacuation of the courthouse was a blessing. The emergency was small enough to send to the hospital only one person, an employee who accidentally mixed chemicals that released chlorine fumes into the courthouse. He was treated for minor injuries.

Just as important, the emergency was big enough to give county officials insight into what they could do better next time—insight that could help the county respond more effectively during a more serious emergency.

On most people’s minds these days are procedures and protocols used to respond to a shooting. Evacuations are common during these incidents, and the sooner people can escape a building and harm’s way, the better. According to the county’s assessment, it took 20 minutes for the courthouse to be evacuated. It’s difficult to say how much time the evacuation should have taken, but the Facilities Management Director Brent Sutherland said it should happen faster.

Sheriff’s office Cmdr. Craig Strouse, who worked in a command post set up near the courthouse, told The Gazette the response to the spill “ran pretty smooth from the sheriff’s office perspective.” He didn’t identify any problems and noted he hadn’t seen the county’s assessment.

But one of the more troubling aspects of the county’s assessment relates to the time and effort spent locating key personnel during the incident. The assessment recommends the creation of an evacuation gathering point to bring together the facilities manager, risk manager and anyone else needed for an emergency.

A related concern is the need for a better method for communicating with courthouse employees. The county uses a phone tree to alert employees during an emergency. Not surprisingly, the phone tree proved inefficient. It takes too much time to reach everyone and risks missing someone.

The assessment recommended the county purchase the Rave Alert system, which instantly can send automated text, voicemail and email notices to staff. Rave Alert would cost $1,000 to install and $5,000 a year to maintain, a worthwhile expense if the service can help minimize confusion during an evacuation.

The assessment concluded the county also should have opened its emergency operation center. “Next, even for small events, the EOC will be opened,” the report states. Having the EOC opened would have assisted officials in communicating with each other and the public.

Small events can sometimes snowball into larger ones, and a decision to not open the EOC could cost the county valuable time should an emergency become more serious than initially realized. Much preferable is the decision to open the EOC and not need it than the decision to not open the EOC and later regret it.

Sutherland told a Rock County Board committee last week that the employee responsible for mixing the chemicals that triggered the evacuation was “beating themselves up pretty hard” and that he was “very, very remorseful.”

No disciplinary action is necessary, Sutherland said, because it was an “honest mistake.”

It was the sort of mistake that might end up doing the county a lot of good. Some problems with the county’s response came to light, and they probably would have gone unnoticed without him mixing those chemicals July 19. We hope the employee takes solace in the many lessons learned from the ordeal.

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