PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — We often rely on local agencies like the police and fire department for assistance during emergencies.
But when a big quake hits, emergency crews will have a lot on their plates and they may not be able to respond as quickly as they normally would.
“We won’t be able to solve every problem immediately,” Rich Tyler with Portland Fire & Rescue said. “It’s going to be very difficult.”
As a city, Portland has a few immediate emergency response priorities when ‘the big one’ hits: gathering damage assessments, clearing debris from roads, and providing imminent medical services to help save lives.
But with only 168 firefighters on duty at any given time, the reality is, they won’t be able to do it all.
“What we’ve learned from all the disasters nationally is it could be up to 3 days before someone is able to come and help you,” Tyler said.
Firefighters’ main priorities will be to save lives, save property and protect the environment — in that order.
If an earthquake causes a large fire — or if a building partially collapses, putting lives in danger — they will respond to those incidents before others where fewer people are in harms way.
“We have to prioritize,” Tyler explained.
According to city documents, Portland police are told not to focus on rescue operations in the direct aftermath of an earthquake.
“We’ve learned, watching other parts of the country that have different disasters, that you do get overwhelmed very quickly with the need for services,” Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Pete Simpson said. “The focus needs to be on protecting life.”
After a quake hits, police are expected to protect life, report damage assessments, provide traffic control and help with evacuations. Eventually, police plan to assign officers to prevent looting.
“If there were to be a major incident, a major natural disaster like an earthquake, your first responders mentally are already ready for that,” Sgt. Simpson said.
Portland’s Emergency Coordination Center will serve as home base for first responders during the aftermath of a natural disaster.
The building, which is structured to withstand a devastating quake, will house police and fire leaders as well as other city officials including the mayor.
“If the ground starts shaking, this will shake with it and will still be functioning afterwards,” Dan Douthit with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management said. “In a disaster, you need to have the city’s leadership and chief public safety officials gathered in one place.”
But if roads and bridges collapse, firefighters and police officers won’t all be in one place. Some who live far away may have difficulty getting into the city.
“If something were to happen, where can they go? What is passable? What roads are safe to get through?” Sgt. Simpson asked. “It may mean you go on foot, go on bicycle, some people may have to use a boat.”
Local police and fire departments say they’ll deal with that problem by keeping on-duty staff at work as long as needed.
“If we have to carry that over into a 24 or 48 or 72-hour time period, we still have 100% staffing as long as no one is injured or gets sick,” Tyler said.
Portland Fire & Rescue has heavy rescue rigs and equipment strategically placed on both sides of the Willamette River. They also have access to fire boats that can be used to transport equipment and supplies across the river.
But no matter how much they prepare, police and fire agencies agree they won’t be able to do it all alone.
Providence St. Vincent Medical Center is currently undergoing seismic upgrades to ensure their building stays standing in the event of an earthquake.
“This is one of the major medical centers in our community,” Nancy Roberts, the hospital’s chief operating officer, said. “We need to be able to be open and serve patients.”
Portland Fire & Rescue has designated medical care points at specific parks and areas around the city. They hope to take care of more minor injuries in those spots, as hospitals prepare for an influx of patients.
“We have the ability to expand our patient care out into the parking lot with surge tents,” Michael Kubler, the director of emergency management for Providence, Oregon region, said. “You kind of adapt to what the situation presents.”
All local hospitals are part of a coalition working to train, prepare and work together to make sure patients get the best treatment in the aftermath of a big earthquake.