The Ketchikan Gateway Borough, City of Ketchikan, and the City of Saxman declared emergencies Monday in response to novel coronavirus, following the recommendations of the Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center.
The Ketchikan EOC, which is mostly virtual at this point, closely follows a national emergency management structure that is used in most disaster situations like wildfires and hurricanes by state and federal agencies.
The EOC is informed by a policy group, made up of the managers of both cities, as well as the borough manager, according to Borough Clerk Kacie Paxton, who is the lead public information officer for the EOC.
The policy group works closely with the unified command, which is composed of Ketchikan Fire Chief Abner Hoage, who serves as the borough and city emergency manager; Jen Bergen, the lead public health nurse for Alaska Division of Public Health in Ketchikan, and Village Public Safety Officer Corey Padron, who is the emergency manager for Saxman.
The unified command, makes decisions as one, taking direction from the policy group, but also reporting to the policy group and making recommendations.
“The mayors have come into play as an advising role,” Paxton said in an interview Tuesday evening.
Hoage is the incident commander for the emergency response in Ketchikan. He said the framework is set up so he can follow guidance given by the policy group and work that into his incident action plan for the day, which is disseminated down the EOC chain of command. The chain of command follows the Incident Command System — a standardized system allowing personnel from multiple agencies to be incorporated into a single management structure.
“So we’re doing the thing that our executive officials want to have done,” Hoage said. “But it also allows them then to focus on what they can, at least, of the daily operations while I deal with the incident.”
As far as a physical EOC, Hoage says there are a number of locations around town where one can be set up, such as the Ketchikan Fire Department or the Ted Ferry Civic Center, but most of the emergency operation command is virtual at this time, using teleconference lines and online tools to communicate.
“I meet with the managers’ offices, both the cities and the borough each day,” said Hoage in an interview Monday. “… I’m in the city offices with our city manager but the borough manager and their staff are here (White Cliff building) and telephonic. … In this specific case we don’t want to bring everybody together in one room. We’re doing the same thing that we’re asking the public to do — we’re doing that social distancing thing.”
The day after this interview, the borough attorney tested positive for coronavirus, leading to the closure and cleaning of the White Cliff building and the self-isolation of those with whom he was in direct contact — including upper management at the borough.
The Ketchikan EOC issued a statement early Tuesday evening informing the public of the positive test result.
Hoage followed that up with an automated phone call regarding the circumstances early Wednesday evening.
Coupled with the disaster declarations Monday, the EOC moved their preparedness level from 1 to 2.
Since the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Ketchikan, the EOC has identified and assigned Sherry Dunlay from PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center as the Operations Section chief, and filled out other roles in the command structure.
On Monday, Hoage described the ICS as flexible, depending on the size of the incident and the agencies needed.
“We need a lot of public health, we need some planning and logistics, but right now we’re not — operations I haven’t even filled,” Hoage said on Monday. “We’re really not doing a lot of operations.”
Thinking ahead, things that are on the EOC’s radar are getting prepared for mass testing if it becomes available, and for a vaccination when one is released, according to Hoage.
“Making sure we’ve identified locations that we have, all the materials that we need, that we have the people,” he said. “... It (ICS) gives just more structure to try to deal with the different things that we’re trying to do.”
As far as raising the levels of preparedness, that doesn’t give the EOC any extra powers, according to Hoage.
“In a level one activation it’s a warm or monitoring level,” said Hoage. “ … Level two means an incident is occurring. … We need to be taking actions.”
The actions EOC took this past weekend and on Monday were addressing social distancing needs and talking with the barge lines to confirm that service would continue.
On Wednesday afternoon the Ketchikan EOC released information on their command structure and some of the assigned roles so far.
Below the incident commander, Hoage, is the deputy incident commander, Padron. Below these two are the logistics, finance, operations and planning section chiefs.
In addition to Dunlay as the Operations Section chief, the assigned roles are South Tongass Fire Chief Steve Rydeen as the Logistics Section chief; City of Ketchikan Finance Director Bob Newell as the Finance Section chief; and Dave Owings of Southeast Alaska Petroleum Response Organization as the Planning Section chief.
On Wednesday, the EOC met twice and section chiefs further filled out their support teams and began, with the help of Paxton and the Deputy PIO Kim Simpson, to answer questions from the community.
The EOC is looking at how to assist the more vulnerable communities in Ketchikan who don’t have the resources for shelter or medical care.
Owings has been finding out what resources and facilities are available in the community and compiling that information in one place, so as the need arises, if there’s more of an outbreak, the EOC has that information on hand.
Ketchikan Fire Marshal Andrea Buchanan is in a liaison position, taking the information the EOC is gathering and compiling and keeping elected officials in the loop.
The EOC also gathered information on airport screening and testing, and recommended travel restrictions and regulations, as well as began reaching out to grocery stores and restaurants to provide information for elderly people and people who can’t leave their homes to see what delivery services are available.
Since the statewide mandate eliminating dine-in options for restaurants and food and beverage establishments, the EOC also intends to communicate with the Ketchikan Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retail Association about the mandate.
City of Ketchikan Mayor Bob Sivertsen said on Monday that the emergency declaration and raising the EOC preparedness level doesn’t necessarily mean that there is more risk present; it gives staff more latitude to deal with the incident and gives them access to more resources.
“It’s all part of the emergency operations plan,” Hoage said.
He said the act of declaration the emergencies was the formal activation of those plans.
“We can use them without that declaration, but it’s really the key,” said Hoage, adding that “it gives us access to resources from the state and the federal level, potentially, should we need them.”
“Level three is a catastrophic disaster and we need everyone on deck immediately,” said Hoage. “On a level three we would call in all the borough department heads, all the city department heads and many of our partners — our Customs and Border Protection, public health, all these different local and state and federal agencies would all come into our EOC.
“And a lot of this,” said Sivertsen, “Is just to answer questions and get information out in a timely manner. And so we just want to make sure people stay calm and use common sense.”