Herald JournalHerald Journal, May 17, 2004

EMS: Expect the unexpected

By Ryan Gueningsman

For Kevin Mathews, his job is to plan for the unplanned.

“Always expect the unexpected,” Mathews said. He has served as McLeod County’s Emergency Management Director for the past seven years, and is also a licensed peace officer. He served with the sheriff’s department in 1995, first working as a deputy.

“I’ve been with the department for nine years,” Mathews said. “It’s amazing how fast time goes.”

Some of his jobs include watching severe weather, and assessing reports of debris, wind, lightning, hail, and heavy rains, which he relays to the National Weather Service based in Chanhassen.

“They’re the ones that feed the watches and warnings to people,” he said. “If we get hit with a large tornado or something like that where there is a lot of damage. We have a possibility of being declared a disaster area, and I would be the one coordinating paperwork and working with that.”

In the event of something “major” happening in the county, Mathews usually assists at the scene. He responded to the site of a helicopter crash last week north of Lester Prairie, taking pictures and working with the FAA.

“After Sept. 11, 2001, my workload has changed over the last couple of years,” he said. “There are a lot of federal grants, training, and equipment that are out there. From 1999 to 2003, McLeod County was given about $100,000 in equipment and training.”

He has another grant that is due in the near future that will pull in about $50,000 in equipment and training.

Having a plan in place

An emergency operations plan is in place for McLeod County, which covers different issues and concerns should an emergency event occur in the county. Notifying the public and deciding on a spokesperson in the event of a disaster are several other things Mathews works on.

Currently, Ray Bayerl, the county board chairman, would be the spokesperson in the event of a disaster, or else he may delegate the responsibility to someone such as a police or fire chief, or representative from the sheriff’s department.

During some severe weather, Mathews will be in contact with local radio stations alerting them as to where the storms are and helping to keep the public informed and safe.

“My working with the media has all been real positive – I can’t get information out to the public without them,” he said. Mathews also noted working with the media on recognizing national EMS week.

Emergency Medical Services Week 2004 will bring together local communities and medical personnel to publicize safety and honor the dedication of those who provide the day-to-day lifesaving services of the medical “front line,” according to ACEP.org.

EMS Week celebrations will also be held in conjunction with National Emergency Medical Services for Children (EMSC) Day Wednesday.

The theme of this year’s EMS Week, “EMS: There When You Need Us,” focuses on the commitment and dedication of the 750,000 EMS providers who supply an essential community service every day.

“In McLeod County, we have a lot of qualified people,” Mathews said. “It’s really nice to work with those people to make the citizens of the county a lot more prepared and knowledgable.”

Severe weather season is upon us

Mathews works with neighboring counties in the event of severe weather, giving them a “heads up” of what may be heading towards them.

He recalls the Buffalo Lake tornado from two summers ago as one where he thought “uh oh – we gotta go to work,” he said. “That tornado was heading right for Stewart, but it turned around and stayed in Renville County.”

“It’s not only calling and saying ‘the storm is coming,’” he said. “A lot of times after the storm passes, we call and ask if they need help. We work really well with the surrounding counties.”

Winsted Police Chief Mike Henrich noted the importance of alerting citizens in the event of a storm, or natural disaster that may have occurred.

Several years ago, Winsted changed its siren system from a “land line” to being computer activated from the dispatch center in Glencoe. If the city were to lose power, the sirens would still be able to be activated via generator.

Winsted also went from having three sirens down to two, and the coverage is suffering, Henrich noted. Placement of a siren across the lake is something that he said has to occur.

“Unfortunately, that is only an outdoor warning system,” he said. “We did come up with a solution for that – a box that businesses and people can buy that, when the sirens go off, these boxes go off also.”

Henrich has information at the police department as to where those boxes can be purchased. The most important thing Henrich noted is to have a plan in place, to have a portable radio, and also to listen to local radio stations and watch television instead of calling the police departments and sheriff’s department to see what is going on.

He has served as Winsted’s emergency management director since the mid-1980s. The City of Lester Prairie is going through the process of hiring an EMS director, and will be interviewing two applicants in the near future.

“Yearly, we do a drill,” Henrich said. “As a director, that’s what I apply for and have obtained. We also try to keep an up-to-date plan between us and the fire department.”

Why are the sirens sounding?

Both the cities of Winsted and Lester Prairie tests emergency sirens the first Wednesday of every month at 1 p.m.

“These sirens have never been used to their fullest potential – and I hope they don’t have to be,” Henrich said. “But if, during the day, a tone goes off, a lot of people look straight up and don’t see anything and assume nothing is wrong.

That siren may go off because, for example, a tanker tipped over with dangerous material, and we’re notifying the city to turn to local radio stations and public access that a certain part of town may be evacuated, etc., he said.

“Whenever we test, we always contact the local radio stations to broadcast that,” Henrich said.

Further information can be found online at www.hsem.state.mn.us, including tornado and severe weather statistics, planning, and other useful information.

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