Emergency responders say they're well tested since 9-11

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comApril 19, 2013 

— Two national tragedies in one week have served as a somber reminder that people might not be as safe as they thought.

"I think all of us have taken things for granted, since it's been many years since 9-11," said Cal Fire Capt. Jeremy Rahn, assistant coordinator for Merced County's office of emergency services.

"With the recent events that have happened we all have to be aware of our surroundings and be prepared," he said.

Each city in the county has its own plan to respond to emergencies, Rahn said, but county agencies are there to provide additional support.

Deputy Delray Shelton, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department, said national tragedies, such as the Boston Marathon bombings and Texas fertilizer plant explosion, remind the public to be prepared.

"I think sometimes we get comfortable, and it's these type of situations that make us aware," Shelton said.

"Unfortunately, we have to be reminded after tragedies or heartache to take extra measures to be safe, whether we're shopping, at a sports event or at home," he said.

Shelton said the Sheriff's Department maintains its preparedness with ongoing training and by working with other agencies to provide help when needed, effectively and efficiently.

Merced Fire Department Chief Mike McLaughlin is confident Merced can handle a major emergency.

"I think we are prepared, because we have trained staff from all levels," McLaughlin said. "There's been tremendous strides made in the wake of 9-11 with numerous training programs for police, fire and EMS agencies."

In a disaster, McLaughlin said, the city would call on mutual aid from the county and outside agencies. The resources would first come from the county, then neighboring counties, and finally state or federal levels.

McLaughlin said the department's staffing levels are based on "day-to-day risks" or emergencies that occur on a regular basis.

However, local agencies increase staff during high-profile events in the region, such as Michelle Obama's speech at UC Merced's commencement in 2009.

In November, Merced County unveiled its new emergency notification system for sending alerts to the public during disasters.

Less than 1,500 people out of the county's more than 250,000 residents have "opted in" by registering, according to Rahn.

Without registering the system relies on phone numbers from the White Pages of the phone book.

"A lot of people don't have home phone numbers anymore," Rahn said of the shift to cell phones. "So that's why it's important to register for yourself and everyone that lives in the household."

The system has about 25,000 White Page contacts right now, but Rahn said it's crucial that residents update their phone numbers and how they want to be contacted.

"If we can't find you, we can't notify you," he said. "The first thing I think of is how do we alert people if an emergency happened? How can we provide critical information?"

There's no cost to register and residents can sign up to receive alerts for multiple locations via cell phone, work phone, email, fax or text messaging.

To register, visit: www.co.merced.ca.us/alert.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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