When the need to evacuate Show Low was declared three weeks ago, a local cellular telephone company had a very generous idea. They distributed hundreds of free cell phones, complete with free usage minutes, to evacuees.
"Their intentions were great," Payson Fire Chief John Ross said. "But it overburdened the area's whole cell-phone system to the point where it crashed and emergency personnel were not able to use cell phones. So that was something that we learned."
But it wasn't all Ross learned when he traveled to Show Low June 25, as the Rodeo-Chediski fire seemed all but certain to consume the town.
Ross made the trek with a carload of other town officials interim Town Manager Kelly Udall, Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner, and Fire Marshal Jack Babb to see what they could learn from Show Low's emergency preparedness team that might benefit Payson in the face of a similar catastrophe.
"We met with Show Low's town manager, the assistant town manager, the police chief, and the fire chiefs of Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside," Ross said. "We also visited the incident-command post and met with the incident commander, information and communications sectors personnel, and public information officers. We were able to view large flame fronts, air operations, the whole extent of it and it was huge. From top to bottom, we were able to see everything that had been done right and the things that hadn't worked out so well."
The cell-phone giveaway was one example. Another was that several different Show Low agencies "were notifying residents sooner than others, and that created a little confusion," Ross said. "So we have learned to get together with all of our agencies and departments to make sure that, in an emergency, only one message gets out at one time. That was important."
Ross also learned that "it's best to keep within the town key people from the private sector, such as folks from Bashas', Wal-Mart, Safeway, gas stations, the utility companies so that no matter what, those places would be manned with an emergency staff.
"The emergency staff that remained in Show Low after the evacuation was without food and fuel, and they had to spend a lot of time getting key folks back," he said. "So we're planning that in advance."
Another group of key people who left when they were needed were town government personnel, Ross said.
"The emergency crew needed to get into different sectors of town government, and there was no way to do that. So we have reinforced that in our plan," he said. "In Payson, the town manager would stay, along with the town engineer, the town attorney, police and fire personnel, the town clerk, information management-system personnel, computer experts and radio technicians, finance personnel and dispatchers."
In terms of Payson's emergency preparedness plan, the most positive lesson Ross has learned of late not only from Rodeo-Chediski, but also the Indian fire which threatened Prescott in May is that Payson's things-to-do-in-a-disaster list is sound.
"Essentially, our plan here is to have a strong initial attack on a fire, whether it's within or outside Payson, utilizing all of our firefighting resources in this region," Ross said. "If evacuation is necessary, law enforcement personnel will be given that responsibility. That's what occurred in Prescott, and it worked extremely well, because we were able to mount a strong initial attack that stopped the fire's progress during the first night."
Still, Ross said, the plan is not written in stone, and never will be.
"We learn from emergencies everywhere: the World Trade Center, fires in Florida, everywhere, and we use information from them to polish our plan. Mother nature's in control," Ross said. "But we have the ability through planning to lessen the degree of impact that Mother Nature may have around us."