How do you protect more than 80,000 people from an odorless, colorless threat that could kill them within minutes? That was the challenge facing the Oregon communities neighboring the U.S. Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot, one of eight national chemical weapons depots stockpiling mustard gas and other deadly munitions.
Their response to this threat may be one of the most comprehensive and technically innovative evacuation control systems in the nation. By 2004, local officials had created a massive wireless network, a series of "overpressurized" shelters, a software modeling program that tracks airborne chemicals and a tone-alert radio system that sounds voice messages during a hazard.
From perches in any of three command centers, officials can override the lights and signs on local highways, activate drop-arm barricades, and update message signs in Spanish and English. With the flip of a switch, emergency management officials can direct residents out of the local area if there's a chemical leak, and monitor roadways via remote-controlled cameras. The evacuation system also includes a video-conferencing setup that enables officials to converse in real time with officials from other parts of Oregon and with first responders working in the field.
Photo: With a flip of a switch from an official in a command center, message signs are activated to alert residents to a drill or real disaster. Photo courtesy of Morrow County, Ore., Emergency Management Agency.
"We didn't have the time like you would during a conventional evacuation, like a hurricane, to spend two days getting people ready and setting up roads they would take," said Casey Beard, director of the Morrow County Emergency Management Agency, which operates one of the region's three command centers. "We had to be able to instantly reconfigure our transportation network to move people away from the threat area."
The International Association of Chiefs of Police gave the system an Innovations and Technology award in 2006, and it was a finalist in 2007 for the Innovation in American Government Award by Harvard University's Ash Institute.
"What we have here that's unique is an elaborate evacuation control system that is activated by Wi-Fi," said Chris Brown, program manager of Oregon's Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program. "We've established a series of portable message boards, we have fixed message boards, and swing-arm barricades that can be dropped -- all [deployed] through a Wi-Fi signal. It can activate messages to inform the public about either moving within the response zone or evacuating."
Approximately 1,000 square miles of north-central Oregon, specifically Morrow and Umatilla counties, is protected by the Wi-Fi network. That coverage zone includes the Umatilla Chemical Depot, as well as nearby cities Umatilla and Hermiston. The depot is part of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, which is a partnership between the Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to safely store chemical weapons.
The Umatilla Depot is slated for closure per the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure act, so all of the chemicals and chemical weapons stored there must be destroyed by 2012. A good portion of the munitions -- including sarin-filled bulk containers; 500-pound and 750-pound bombs; rockets; warheads; and land mines -- already have been destroyed. But a supply of mustard gas remains onsite and will take a few years to incinerate. Therefore, drills and tests of the evacuation system continue, some done twice a day.
Local officials, including Morrow County's Beard and Hermiston, Ore., Police Chief Daniel Coulombe, enlisted a local innovator, Fred Ziari, for help. As founder and CEO of ezWireless, Ziari developed irrigation technology to save water and electricity for Columbia River basin farmers.
"[Ziari] already had a very innovative group of people who were willing to take
a look at new technologies and new ways to do things," Beard said. Ziari had access to facilities and had developed technologies that monitor a soil's moisture level and temperature, which helps farmers know when to fertilize. Consequently developing a wireless evacuation system and a chemical monitoring system wasn't a stretch for him.
Ziari had already established a Wi-Fi cloud in Oregon before the network was built. It now extends 700 square miles and is considered one of the largest Wi-Fi hot spots in the world. Ziari spent $5 million of his own money to build the wireless network. He recovers his investment through contracts with more than 30 city and county agencies and the area's big farms -- including one that supplies more than two-thirds of the red onions used by the Subway sandwich chain.
Photo: The chemicals stored at the Umatilla Chemical Depot are odorless, colorless, tasteless and deadly. Photo courtesy of Morrow County, Ore., Emergency Management Agency.
Beard said he was warned of the security issues surrounding Wi-Fi deployments and their range problems. But he went forward with the project and made it work. "We had some real advantages. Nobody else was using that part of the spectrum, and the terrain is flat. Sometimes people in government are afraid to take chances," he said.
But there were challenges. With two freeways adjacent to the chemical depot and two major state highways nearby, the motoring public's safety needed to be addressed. "At any given time there could be up to 2,000 vehicles passing through the danger area, plus there are people out there driving around. There are always going to be some who, even if you ask them to 'shelter in place,' are going to jump in their cars and take off."
Beard said that given the urgency -- they might have no more than 10 minutes to shelter in place or evacuate the area -- officials needed the capability to instantly reconfigure the transportation network to move people away from the danger zone. "We elected to put variable message signs at strategic points in the transportation system -- intersections where you could turn people around. A couple hundred of those were scattered around," Beard said. "We also have fixed signs that designate evacuation routes. The idea is to funnel all the people into those designated evacuation routes."
Fortunately the evacuation system hasn't been used for a chemical leak, but the scenario could fall along these lines if it were to occur:
There's a chemical leak at the plant. A Morrow County employee stationed within the chemical depot is alerted by the software, which simulates a chemical plume to track the leak and predict where it will go based on wind direction and weather reports.
The modeling software is called D2-Puff. It knows what kinds of chemicals are stored at the depot and what the significance is, depending on what chemical is leaked. It takes into account wind direction, topography and air temperature, and then presents on a computer screen a new visual image of the plume every 15 minutes, up to 24 hours. It rates the leak, choosing among three ranges of severity.
"What this does is give us a very educated source of information about, 'If this happens, this is where it's going to go,'" Coulombe said. "We can use the information to determine if we can safely deploy in an area, if we have to evacuate, and where we would shelter in place. It's a critical component of the whole process."
The command centers are alerted within three minutes of a leak. The commander on duty reacts based on the severity of the
leak by choosing one of four scenarios on a chart. For instance, if the wind direction is from the north, he chooses scenario No.3 and pushes the corresponding buttons, which activate the predetermined drop-arm barricades, highway message signs and the appropriate traffic lights.
"We took all the traffic signals in the area and linked them automatically to scenarios. When the button is pushed, they are re-timed," Beard said. "You get some with longer red times, some with longer green times and some go to flashing yellow to expedite movement of traffic on the routes you want traffic to go on."
All the while, officials in the three command centers monitor the network's 30 video cameras that are placed strategically along highways and roadways. The cameras to make sure traffic is flowing smoothly and in the correct direction. The information is shared via video conferencing with Gov. Ted Kulongoski in his Salem, Ore., office and with other officials, including those in Benton County, Wash., to the north.
Photo: Wireless connectivity helps public safety officials track police, fire and emergency medical resources. Photo courtesy of Morrow County Emergency Management Agency.
Another scenario activates sirens that instruct residents to "shelter in place." The signal is sounded by specially designed tone radios placed in homes. The sirens also notify police officers' laptops and those in charge of shelter-in-place facilities: Forty buildings (e.g., medical clinics, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and county buildings) in the two counties have been rendered virtually leakproof and can safely shelter residents for days.
The buildings are nearly airtight and are equipped with alarms that go off if anyone tries to open a window or door. The buildings are equipped with giant filters that utilize activated charcoal, the same material used in gas masks. "We worked with the Honeywell Corp. to develop a specialized, circulating air filter that's designed specifically for this," Beard said. "We issued a commercial-grade circulating air filter to all citizens in the vicinity of the depot."
Air is pumped into the buildings at higher ambient pressure than the outdoor air; if there is leakage it will travel outside the building. The buildings are tested weekly to make sure they maintain their overpressurization.
"We conducted studies that determined with enhancements [including duct tape] a room in a person's house could keep them safe for a prolonged period of time, even if exposed to chemical weapons," Beard said. "We took it to a higher level with overpressurization of schools, hospitals and other key public facilities. All you have to do is throw a switch and you can keep people safe for an indefinite period of time."
Of course, practice is a key component of the evacuation system. A large number of students are "experts" at moving into the facilities and quickly establishing the shelter, Beard said. "In our drills, we routinely have students in place and [they're] reporting that their facility is up and running within two minutes or less."
And although the deadly chemicals stored at the depot will be going away, the evacuation system will still be useful after the threat is gone.
For the Hermiston Police Department, the wireless laptops in squad cars means cops can file crime reports from the field and save on overtime. They can track resources. "When first responders, firemen and EMTs show up at the fire hall or hospital," said Beard, "they're automatically logged in with our Wi-Fi system using a thing we call the operations console. You can tell how many people are there and how many teams are available."
Meanwhile, some coastal Oregon communities are vulnerable to a tsunami, and the system would help in the event of an evacuation. The 30 cameras that run on the Wi-Fi system also would provide information on traffic counts and bottlenecks in everyday use.
There is also a large railroad switching yard just south of the area, and the railcars often carry deadly chemicals. "There's always a potential for hazard there," Coulombe said. There are also the two highways and a natural gas pipeline that spans from Washington down through Oregon and into California.
"We have a complex plan that governs two counties, a tribal nation and several state agencies, and is coordinated across the Columbia River with Washington state," Beard said. "It's a complex plan, but it's one plan. That's probably the biggest thing we accomplished in this."