For the announced crowd of 1,305 people at the Horseman’s Sports Arena rodeo grounds on Saturday, it was a day for fun and music.
For Mitchell and Davison County’s emergency responders at the Cornstalk Music Jam, it was training day.
Held in conjunction with the inaugural concert, Davison County Emergency Management also had a first of its own, holding its annual full-scale training exercise in conjunction with a real, live event for the first time. The event included 10 agencies and more than 25 participants ranging from law enforcement, fire and rescue, event staff, National Weather Service personnel and emergency management.
Davison County Emergency Management Administrator Jeff Bathke said the idea coalesced earlier this year when meeting with colleagues at a regional meeting. The requirement is that an exercise is scheduled 45 days in advance. A full-scale exercise is required each year to receive funding from the South Dakota Office of Emergency Management, Bathke said.
“We have the requirement for a full-scale exercise,” he said. “We seem to have a lot of stuff that goes on here, and we could have 10 real-life events but we still have to have one fake event. So we just asked, 'Why can’t we use a real-life event?' and created a scenario for that.”
The scenario that officials worked Saturday called for monitoring a severe thunderstorm that is spotted as a tornado south of Mitchell. In that case, the show director would stop the show and require an evacuation, with the shelter at the Corn Palace. Because many attendees of the show aren’t from Mitchell, the shelter becomes overloaded with people, and several agencies would lead the efforts to evacuate concert attendees. But the scenario also called for weather to intensify, resulting in heavy rain and hail and several people are trampled, resulting in serious injuries and fatalities. In the scenario, several calls overload the 911 dispatch center, and Mitchell EMS takes the injured to the hospital, but the emergency room becomes overloaded.
Previously, scenarios that have been simulated have included a blizzard/ice storm, tornado, hazardous materials leak, and fire and evacuation at Avera Brady Health and Rehab senior housing facility in Mitchell. Some of those scenarios have taken place in Mitchell, but Bathke said that can lead to so much simulation that it doesn’t feel like a real situation, so playing out the situation next to a live event helps prepare.
“I think in the future, we will always try to work with a real live event,” he said, noting that there has been close calls for weather at the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo in previous years. “I always try to pick something that can realistically happen here. We’re never going to pick an earthquake. We want it to be realistic.”
On Saturday, Bathke said the exercise included two staff members from the National Weather Service’s Sioux Falls office who were stationed in the county’s Emergency Management Operations Center, which is a trailer where the emergency management staff can monitor radar and radio traffic on site.
“That’s the first time we’ve ever had them involved and it’s probably not going to be the last,” he said. “Normally, a situation like that would involve us calling them, so to work together face-to-face like that is helpful for both sides.”
Having a regional NWS office can be helpful for reporting storm activity, he said.
“In a storm, we have direct contact on the radio,” Bathke said. “There was talk in the past that the NWS was going to reorganize, and our messages would be rerouted to Chicago or Minneapolis. With people in Sioux Falls, if we say we’re at the corner of Old Highway 16 and Betts Road, they know what we’re talking about.”
Bathke said some lessons were learned, too. He said there’s a system that alerts emergency personnel when there’s a severe weather warning where the National Weather Service calls dispatch, and then that triggers radio messages to other groups. In one case, there was a seven-minute delay from the first radio receiving a message to the last.
“If we were the last ones, that could be seven minutes too late,” Bathke said. “We think it’s a glitch, and it’s something we can try to fix.”
The rodeo grounds, he said, is also a tough zone to get cellular internet service during events, meaning connections to radar were difficult to maintain.
“I love when things go wrong,” Bathke said. “When it goes right, we don’t have anything to learn from. For us, it’s not a game-stopper, but it’s just the pain of not having it. … I guess we’re spoiled.”