Park City learns importance of preparedness in mock evacuation

Officials planned to host the exercise last fall, before the Parleys Canyon Fire

Around 60 people participated in a full-scale emergency evacuation drill on Wednesday in Park City. The exercise was developed through collaboration between the municipal government and public safety organizations to ensure they are ready to respond in a crisis.
David Jackson/Park Record

A yellow hat. A green water bottle tucked into a backpack. A black roller suitcase accompanied by a brown paper bag filled with canned food. A framed children’s painting of “The Starry Night.” These are the things Park City resident Charlotte O’Connell would bring if she had to evacuate.

O’Connell was one of nearly 60 people who participated in a full-scale drill Wednesday to test Park City’s emergency evacuation plan. She’s never lived in a mountain town before, having moved to Park City from New Jersey 18 months ago, and she thought it was important to learn what City Hall plans to do during a disaster.

The full-scale drill was developed through collaboration between the municipal government, stakeholders, and other public safety organizations, including the Park City Police Department, Utah Highway Patrol and the Park City Fire District. 

Wednesday’s exercise also carried a renewed message about preparedness, one particularly relevant as Tampa residents were evacuating because of Hurricane Ian. 

Park City Emergency Manager Mike McComb said officials started planning the event last fall, when the Parleys Canyon Fire ripped through the mountainside and put hundreds of Summit Park homes at risk, forcing thousands of residents to leave. 

Park City’s location in a box canyon — meaning it’s enclosed on all sides by steep walls and has limited entrance and exit access — provides an added challenge for emergency planners. McComb said it’s crucial to be flexible, scalable and adaptable. 

“Parleys was a worst-case scenario with one way in and one way out,” he said. “Of course, lessons were learned, but there are no guarantees in a disaster, so being ready is key.”

Community members who signed up to participate received an alert around 9 a.m. notifying them of the scenario: a large earthquake rattled the Wasatch Fault, leading to the closures of Interstate 80 and 84, effectively closing off the Salt Lake Valley. The hypothetical earthquake also caused a semi-truck carrying flammable materials to crash near Summit Park, causing a large wildfire.

Hospitals were closed or inundated with patients and water services were shut down. The chief of police ultimately ordered mock evacuations of Park City Mountain and Deer Valley as local resources were tapped. Residents were asked to assemble in a Deer Valley parking lot chosen as an intermediate safety zone.

O’Connell served in the Air Force and lived overseas twice, which she said helped her learn how to be ready to depart at any time. Although participants weren’t required to, she created a go-pack filled with everything she needed, from medications and food to clothing and personal mementos, to be away from home for 72 hours. 

When O’Connell arrived shortly after the alert was sent, she realized there were a few items she had forgotten to pack. Next time, she’ll remember.

“It’s worth just seeing what you have. It’s worth it just to think about it,” she said.

After a quick briefing, participants were asked to either board a bus or drive their vehicles in a convoy headed toward Richardson Flat. They were warned to follow all traffic laws and about a few possible “bumps in the road.”

As the group traveled from Deer Valley down to Bonanza Drive, they encountered a staged accident between one of the transit buses and a few cars. Several actors sustained fake injuries in the mock crash. 

Park City Police arrived on the scene and began directing traffic and requesting medical support. Two participants were tasked with supporting the neck of an actor when they said they had experience as EMTs. Police also engaged with the victims, provided patient updates and kept passengers calm. Later, they took statements from those involved in the accident.

Park City Fire crews continued providing aid to the injured until an ambulance and medical helicopter arrived. The exercise provided first responders an opportunity to work efficiently as a large team while communicating effectively.

After the scene was cleared, the remaining participants continued to the Richardson Flat park-and-ride. Officials had established an incident command center in the parking lot and several volunteer organizations such as American Red Cross Disaster Relief were present. Although the group was only providing information in the mock scenario, they would partner with the community to provide hot meals, snacks and water in a real crisis. 

The media was invited to attend a mock press conference at the park-and-ride to help prepare officials for an actual emergency briefing. McComb and Park City Police Department Public Information Officer Jay Randall, serving as incident commanders, provided an update about damages and emergency response.

Representatives from newspapers, radio and television later questioned emergency managers about the details of the scenario, including the number of injuries and how long the evacuation order would be in place. Park City Council members Max Doilney, Tana Toly and Jeremy Rubell also participated, offering a message of support and unity to first responders and the affected community.

“Folks out there, know we’re here for you, come out to the evacuation sites and we’ll be able to take care of everyone… The most important thing is just staying safe right now,” Rubell said.

The full-scale drill was held as part of National Emergency Preparedness Month and City Hall’s ongoing wildfire preparedness and mitigation efforts. McComb hoped officials would learn what they are doing well and what still needs to be improved.

For example, a few residents said they didn’t receive an emergency alert notifying them of the evacuation. McComb said some people might not have properly registered, but there could also have been a glitch in the system. Officials also have to consider how a real-life scenario would be different from the drill as the number of participants, fewer than 100, was significantly lower than the number of people who could be visiting on a peak ski day.

Still, McComb considers the exercise a success and an important step in Park City’s emergency preparedness. He said they’re still gathering input from stakeholders, but the information will be presented to the City Council at a later date.

“I’m personally very happy with how it all came together. For a first attempt, it was great,” he said.

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