VashonBePrepared's Early History

Joe Ulatoski, 2006A number of sporadic efforts to develop some sort of disaster response were made before 2002.  All seemed to lapse due to lack of interest and/or local political infighting.

In the early 2002, after a big earthquake in Algeria (?) a number of us, acting independently, apparently visited VIFR to see if any sort of a response plan existed.  We were told there was no such thing.  Chief Wilson said he recognized the need but was too embroiled in the fight to move the dispatch office off of the Island to do anything about it.

In November 2002, I received a call from Thad Dahl, Chief of VIFR Training, telling me that the Chief had directed him to call a meeting to consider developing a disaster response plan.  There were six individuals at that meeting.  Thad advised us that while VIFR would sponsor any efforts, it was not staffed or ready to assume responsibility for the development of such a plan.  The rest were ready to participate but did not want to assume a leadership role.  I volunteered and was elected President/Chairperson of this initial group and successor organizations, serving until 2006 when I was succeeded by Rick Wallace.

Initially, since we did not want to reinvent the wheel, our first efforts during late 2002 and early 2003 were directed towards finding out whether any sort of a plan had ever been prepared.  We went through all of VIFRs files, contacted all of the former fire chiefs and visited King County, but  could not find any plan that encompassed the Island.  We did find bits and pieces of efforts that could help mitigate the impact of a major disaster but all were working in isolation.  These included the Vashon Emergency Preparedness Committee which was prepared to assist individual households and families suffering from a disaster but nothing that looked at the Island.  There was a listing of medical personnel who would assemble at the Penny Farcy Training Center in a disaster but no plan.  ARES personnel were willing to help but were not permitted in the so-called EOC. A CERT class, which was no longer functional, had been taught by Rick Frye and another process under the leadership of Jack Nelson.  There was an EOC plan in existence but it was an “eye wash” sort of thing produced to meet a requirement but not to address reality.  And, no EOC staff had been trained or even identified.

As the search for something tangible went on all of the original members, except myself, faded away and new people began coming in.  These included May Gerstle, Ward Silver and Pete Murray.  Deputy Chief Yamane was introduced as the Point of Contact and even he faded away and was replaced by Deputy Chief Parks.  Neither ever showed much interest in disaster preparedness.

It soon became obvious that the whole planning process had to begin from scratch.  I developed a concept plan so we had something to sell as we recruited personnel.  That concept plan was informally reviewed by King County Office of Emergency Management and met with their informal approval.  That same plan, basically unchanged, is the model we are still using today.

As we recruited, we found that the main stumbling block was the almost island-wide distrust of the VIFR and it soon became obvious that we needed to overcome political opposition if we were to make any progress.  In order to do this, we determined that we had to develop trust among the key organizations on the Island. We approached the VMICC, the Chamber of Commerce and the VEPC, sold them on the need for some sort of a disaster response plan and offered each of these organizations veto authority if any actions contemplated by the group did not meet with the approval of their organizations approval.  As a result the formation of a group having the objective of developing a disaster response plan and an organization reasonably capable of implementing that plan came into being during the period May-July 2003.  For lack of a better name, it was decided to call it the Vashon Disaster Preparedness Coalition (VDPC).  The group had no legal standing and very limited VIFR support.  In fact, as we began to flesh out the concept of operation, we found this was a minor problem compared to building a trusting working relationship between the various organizational representatives and the community in general.

Early in the process, Jack Nelson, because of personal problems, decided to resign his role as CERT trainer.  Michael and Catherine Cochrane volunteered to take over.  One of the key issues that surfaced was the role of CERTs.  The approved plan was for VIFR to provide training facilities and instructors, with management provided by the Cochranes.  At the end of the training CERTs were supposed to return to their neighborhoods and form neighborhood teams. The problem was that CERT volunteers came from all over the island and the formation of  neighborhood  teams was obviously impractical.  We then developed the idea that CERT teams could extend the capabilities of VIFR islandwide and convinced the Chief, VIFR to support the concept.

Shortly after the formation of the VDPC, it became obvious during the planning process that the VIFR could not staff the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and respond to emergencies as well during a major disaster.  As a result, it was decided that if the EOC was to function during a disaster, it would have to be staffed by volunteers from the community at large. It was also decided that those in the VDPC who were responsible for planning in specific disciplines and organizational development would also be the individuals most capable of overseeing the implementation of the Island plan.  Thus while engaged in the planning process, VDPC volunteers would work under the guidance of the VDPC in cooperation with VIFR.  Then, when a disaster occurs, these same VDPC volunteers would assume staff responsibilities and work under the direct supervision of the Incident Commander.

By early 2003 we had the beginnings of a plan and an organization.  The concept plan had been accepted as a model for future growth, CERTs had a role, ARES had been invited by VIFR, albeit grudgingly, into the EOC,  the VEPC had begun to accept its role as the feeding and sheltering organization in the aftermath of a catastrophic disaster and May Gerstle was building a public information team.  Nothing had yet been done insofar as organizing neighborhoods was concerned.  In trying to recruit for CERT classes we found quite a number of people were interested in participating in some way, but could not or would not spend the time attending the training course.  So using a term coined by Jack Nelson we began to recruit informal groupings of neighbors whose primary roles were surveying for damage and reporting conditions in their neighborhoods.  These were called Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations (NEROs).

Since the VDPC had no official standing and no other organization on Vashon had any formal responsibility for disaster preparedness or disaster response activities, this became the next challenge that had to be addressed.  After a considerable effort, the commissioner’s of Fire District #13 were persuaded to temporarily assume responsibility for disaster planning and to formalize this, they sent a letter to the King County Executive offering to assume that responsibility. No response was ever received to that letter.  However, in June 2004 the King County Officer of Emergency Management offered to support formation of a Vashon Island Emergency Management Area (VIEMA) composed primarily of elected officials plus representatives of the King County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Transportation.  Thus VDPC, for the next several months, in addition to its on-going planning functions, focused its attention on persuading the boards and commissioners of the Vashon Island School District, Water District #19 and Fire District #13 to join in the formation of a VIEMA.  By September 2004 all had signed the Interlocal Agreement and it was forwarded to King County for approval.  After delays of several months, the formation of a VIEMA was formally approved by King County on April 18, 2005.

The next issue that had to be addressed was the inter-relationship between the VDPC and VIEMA.  After considerable discussion and debate, it was recommended that since the VIEMA did not have any funds or staffing capability, the VDPC would serve as VIEMA’s planning staff.  The VDPC agreed to this and the VIEMA approved it at the 17 June 2005 meeting. This arrangement continues at present.

During the early days of its existence, the VDPC did not have an funding and was totally dependent on administrative support from VIFR.  CERT training was also directly funded by that organization as well.  In 2004 and 2005 VIFR provided some minimal specific disaster preparedness funding.  During latter 2005 and in subsequent years this process became more regularized.  In late 2005, King County made grants of FEMA/DHS funds available to local communities on a competitive basis.  As a follow-on Vashon received grants for Citizens Corps Council activities, CERT, Volunteers in Police Service, the Medical Reserve Corps, and NEROs.  In addition, a grant was received from Rotary for generators and satellite telephones and additional grants was received from King County for disaster preparedness supplies and equipment.

In early 2006, Rick Wallace was elected President of VDPC. (From here on questions about the history should be referred to Rick Wallace.)

Joe Ulatoski

*** General Joseph Ulatoski, a retired Brigadier General, is the originator of emergency preparedness efforts on Vashon. In 2007, he described the initial efforts to organize, which led to the 2007 incorporation of VashonBePrepared as a coalition of various groups informally known as the disaster clubs.