Emergency response planning for the total solar eclipse started two years ago in Teton County, when emergency officials learned Jackson Hole was in the path of totality.
“We realized there were two ways to look at this,” Teton County Emergency Management coordinator Rich Ochs said. “Either an invasion or an opportunity.”
The objectives for planning have been focused on public safety and enjoyment, not promotion.
Q: With an unknown number of people expected, how are police going to respond to emergencies?
A: Emergency Services (fire, EMS, law enforcement, and SAR) are going to respond to emergencies how we normally do, with some slight modifications. On any given day our dispatch centers prioritize calls based on life safety, incident stabilization, and property preservation (LIP). Day to day we are fortunate to have more resources than we have calls for service, meaning if someone calls in having a heart attack and someone else calls in with a trespassing complaint, we have enough resources to deal with both. But in cases where we don’t have enough resources, the trespassing complaint (property preservation) would have to wait until the heart attack (life safety) is dealt with.
What we are modifying are the numbers of responders (they are being increased) and how we dispatch them to calls. Responders are being placed into divisions or zones. So instead of calls just going to the next available resource, resources in a particular division will stay there and only handle calls in that division. This cuts down on travel time and ensures we have the entire county taken care of. Of course if there is a major incident, we will move resources between divisions as appropriate based on the LIP model.
Q: With cellphone problems expected, what’s the best way to communicate an emergency?
A: A couple things to know about our communications networks:
• Landlines are pretty resilient and have good capacity. They are the most likely to work if there is a surge in people in the area. If you don’t have a landline, find out which neighbors do.
• Cellphone use may overload cell towers. This could cause complete outages, but more likely customers will have a difficult time completing phone calls, may see reduced data speeds and have sporadic service.
• Text messages use less bandwidth on cell towers than voice calls, so they can have a better chance of completion when towers are overloaded. Know how to text and make sure your family members know how to as well.
• Although we do have text to 911 in Teton County, you should always try to call 911 as opposed to texting. If you cannot make a phone call due to network overloading, a disability, or for safety reasons, you shouldn’t hesitate to text to 911. But if you are able to make a voice call to 911, that is always preferred. With a voice call dispatchers can get better location information from you, they can hear the tone of your voice, and they can pick up on things in the background that can help them to get you the assistance you need.
• In emergencies, many times it can be difficult to make a local call since everyone is trying to call one another to check and see if friends and family are safe. Long distance calls use different circuits than local calls, so your chances of making a successful long distance call are better in a disaster. Have a family communications plan where you pick a family member from out of town that your family will call to check in with to let them know you are safe if a disaster strikes.
Q: How should locals prepare for emergencies in the days leading up to Aug. 21?
A: Emergency Management is recommending that people have enough food, water, fuel, medications and other essentials to be self-sufficient for three days. This means for yourself, your family and your pets. We recommend stocking up before Aug. 16, as this will likely be when the real surge in visitation begins. This isn’t because we necessarily think we’ll run out of resources in our community, but it will be really inconvenient to get out and go food shopping or get gas with so many visitors in town. It is possible we could see sporadic shortages, but we don’t predict that.
The thing is, this is what we recommend the public does every day of the year. Every person should have a plan for disasters, a three day supply of essentials (preferably longer), and get training on first aid, CPR or other life-saving skills. The eclipse is just a great reason to put those disaster kits together, dust off your family emergency plan, and review what you might do if disaster struck. A great resource is Ready.gov.
Q: We’re approaching peak wildfire season. What should eclipse campers and visitors keep in mind?
A: With wildfires in particular, we want everyone to be extra cautious with campfires and be sure they are completely extinguished. This goes for cigarette butts as well, and also making sure not to park vehicles over dry grasses. As locals we should be communicating this to the visiting public. They may not be aware of how quickly a wildfire can grow here in late August. It’s our job to be gracious hosts and guides, and fill them in on all the great things about Jackson Hole and how they can enjoy it safely.