BUCKEYE, Ariz. --
"In case of emergency, pull handle," seems like an easy task - all one has to do is pull the lever and first responders come to the rescue.
If only all emergencies were that simple. In the event of a major disaster, the response is complex and requires coordination with dozens of agencies. State officials say practice is the key to ensuring a smooth and effective response.
The Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) held a joint exercise with the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station during the month of February and completed a second exercise last week.
When disasters strike Arizona, the governor may call upon DEMA's military forces - the Arizona Army and Air National Guard - to assist in the protection of life and property. A third component, the Arizona Division of Emergency Management, or ADEM, rounds out the department with a cadre of emergency management experts who specialize in preparedness, operations, recovery and logistics.
"It is unlikely that a major incident will happen at Palo Verde, but unlikely doesn't mean impossible and that's why we exercise," said Judy Kioski, the public information officer for ADEM. "Each exercise is an opportunity to train new employees, 'stress test' plans, refine processes and improve procedures."
ADEM plans and participates in a schedule of full-scale and discussion-based exercises every year, which include the Palo Verde series.
"We conduct exercises annually for the plant and our function is to coordinate any offsite response," said Wendy Smith-Reeve, ADEM director and deputy director for DEMA. "Palo Verde is responsible for handling internal issues, and we support the county and local government with offsite response measures."
Since this is an exercise, it gives all agencies a chance to safely rehearse protective action decisions and communications. In doing so, federal standards must be met, and agencies must prepare for federal evaluations.
"The evaluations help us ensure we are always ready for emergencies. It helps to have someone watching from the outside and give us feedback on improvements needed and things we should sustain," Smith-Reeve said.
DEMA conducted the exercise as a live emergency. Subject matter experts and key personnel from the plant convened at the Palo Verde Energy Education Center, about 20 miles east of the plant, which also serves as a joint information center where media receives up-to-date information.
"Communication is huge," said Smith-Reeve, "so not only will we have various agency representatives here at our joint information center, we will also have those from the plant coordinating direct communications back to us from the Palo Verde Center so we have constant updates to the situation. It is critical that everyone is talking to each other and the same information is relayed at all levels and to all partners."
The inside of a joint information center can look rather hectic - with many people donning different colored vests representing the various agencies, rushing from one room to another, laptop in-hand, phone in another. However, it's through their joint efforts that management and the public receives the most current information for making vital response decisions.
"All of those partners are important to the process because we have various emergency support functions, and all of those functions have primary agency players," said Smith-Reeve.
Preparing for every "what if" scenario, exercises help the government plan for any situation and ensure efficient response efforts.
"DEMA's unique access to resources, focus on partnerships, and attention to preparedness and response are what make it ready, responsive and reliable," Kioski said. "We put the best interests of Arizonans first every time we deploy National Guard service members to protect our community, when we exercise offsite response plans for Palo Verde, and when we help an impacted community recover from a wildfire or other disaster."
Smith-Reeve said it's imperative to maintain long-term partnerships not just for operational needs, but to also maintain interpersonal relationships.
"The reason why we exercise emergency scenarios that could occur in Arizona is because in most instances we are working with the same people all the time, so when there is an event, we come together and it's a collaborated effort. No one agency can do it all, and so it's together that we succeed," said Smith-Reeve.
For more information about how Arizona's state emergency management functions visit: http://www.azdema.gov/.