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Report finds emergency system lacking

West Virginia's 10-year-old disaster management system is not properly understood and is difficult to access and use, according to a recent Governor's Office report on last summer's derecho.

On the evening of June 29, 2012 - a year ago Saturday, as West Virginians will unpleasantly remember - straight-line winds swept across the state, knocking down trees and power lines and leaving between 1.4 million and 1.6 million residents without electricity. The outages stretched for more than a week in some areas.

Ideally, affected cities and counties would have used "E Team," an Internet-based emergency management system managed through the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The system is meant to work as a communications platform for city, county, state and federal emergency personnel. Municipalities should use it to receive information from state and federal agencies and submit requests for resources.

But a review requested last year by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and released earlier this month found access to E Team was "undefined and inconsistent" in the hours and days following the derecho.

The report found emergency response personnel were not adequately trained to use the program, and training for new users was infrequent.

"There is not a common understanding of the philosophy and doctrine behind the utilization of the system, nor is there a common understanding in the manner in which data is used during and after an incident," the report read.

Kanawha County Manager Jennifer Sayre said she ran into several problems in using E Team during last year's storms.

"If I remember correctly, we did have some issues with all the counties being able to log on and put the information in there, and get information back from the state," she said.

Most of the problems were linked to log-in information. Sayre said county usernames for E Team did not work, and it was some time before the state remedied the problem.

She said there also was a delay when the county requested resources from the state. She said the county might request a generator in the morning and although it needed a response by that afternoon, would not hear anything back.

"In an emergency it feels like days," she said. "When you're in an emergency situation, you want an immediate answer."

Although state Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato helped compile Tomblin's review, another official at the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management says the report's criticisms of E Team are not entirely accurate.

The report says the system is "inconsistent with the nationally recognized standard Incident Command System," a communication system used by first responders across the state.

"That's a load of crap," said Paul Howard, director of operations. "That's incorrect."

He said all E Team communications are compatible with the Incident Command System.

The report also said there are no procedures to transmit or receive information when users do not have Internet access during power outages.

Howard said that also is "baloney." He said anyone who needed access to E Team but did not have Internet access could call or fax information to the Division of Homeland Security, where their requests would be entered into the E Team system.

He said an emergency coordinator in Roane County had to contact Homeland Security using her cellphone.

"We take it however we can get it, and then it's documented here," he said. "They weren't asking the right people."

Howard acknowledged there were access issues with E Team following the derecho because many counties did not have electricity or Internet access. Fifty-three of West Virginia's 55 counties were affected by power outages.

"It's internet based, so if communications systems are down . . . then there's trouble," he said.

In other cases, county officials were just hesitant to use E Team.

"There are some folks that are stuck in the '90s. There are some folks that are resistant to putting information on an Internet-based platform," he said.

Most of the other access issues with E Team can be remedied with training, Howard said. The Division of Homeland Security has increased training efforts since last year's storms and has already seen wider usage of the system.

"As with any software system of any kind, whether it's Microsoft Office or your favorite game . . . if you don't use it, you're going to lose it," he said. "User training is the long pole on the tent."

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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