A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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LIFEBOAT VASHON —An island community prepares for disaster

by Candace Brown




The native old growth timber that once covered Vashon-Maury Island—or just “Vashon” as locals call it—is gone now, and on summer weekends cars and tourists crowd the one-traffic-light village by the same name. But the forests, fern-covered roadsides, plentiful deer, birds, and native plants make this idyllic isle in Washington State appear nearly as green, peaceful, and seemingly safe as it did to the settlers who first arrived in the 1870s. It is the kind of place that inspires strong loyalties and a sense of belonging—in spite of a danger the original population never suspected.

Surrounded by the waters of Puget Sound, the connected islands of Vashon (about 30 sq. miles) and Maury (about 7 sq. miles) hold the deep familial roots of the descendants of those pioneers and the emotional roots of others, roots that rest in potentially shaky ground. Major earthquake fault zones run close to the island’s shores, both north and south, and lesser faults bisect it. Some residents choose to live in denial of the danger. But one day they might owe their lives to the few who faced the possibility of earthquakes or other disasters, those who recognized the islanders’ interdependence and the need for an emergency preparedness plan.

Photo by Candace Brown


“Knowledge is power,” said lifelong resident Reed Fitzpatrick. His ancestors, the Harringtons, came from New York and started a greenhouse business on Vashon about 1890. Their original log cabin still stands. An islander through and through, Fitzpatrick has no plans to ever live anywhere else, in spite of some inconvenience and the seismic risks. But he realizes that, although only minutes away from Seattle and Tacoma by ferry, the island could also be only minutes away from isolation in the event of a natural disaster.

Fitzpatrick decided to become a Registered Emergency Worker (REW) and a member of a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) which uses a training program developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It seemed like the right fit and he felt good about it. He said, “It trained you to do the stuff you really need to do when things are bad, when the power is out, when people need assistance, food, transportation, or whatever. You’re part of the group and can affect positive, constructive assistance.”

Fitzpatrick’s neighborhood also formed a NERO, a Neighborhood Emergency Response Organization, a Vashon hybrid.  But he couldn’t have done any of these things to contribute to his community’s safety if other dedicated and persistent citizens had not first sought solutions to its problem of vulnerability.

Launching the Lifeboat—building Vashon’s emergency preparedness plan

“The real amazing person who coordinated the entire effort,” Fitzpatrick said, “was Joe Ulatoski, along with a core group. They just started reaching out into the community and tapping people who had some expertise in various things.”

During his military career, one of retired Brigadier General Joseph Ulatoski’s specialties was civic affairs—how communities function, how they maintain food and water supplies, banking systems, etc.  The island’s dedicated and highly skilled employees and volunteers of King County Fire Protection District No. 13—Vashon Island Fire and Rescue—serve their community well, but they are trained, staffed, and funded to provide two main things: fire suppression and emergency medical care. In the aftermath of a terrible disaster, so much more would be needed.

After a major earthquake occurred in Algeria, Ulatoski looked up at the open beams in the ceiling of his living room and wondered what would happen if an earthquake destroyed his house and caused those beams to fall on him or his wife. Who would respond to the needs of islanders in a situation that extreme? The answer offered by the King County Office of Emergency Management (OEM), according to Ulatoski, was “We’d fly over Vashon in a helicopter and see what kind of damage there was, and then we’d decide who we’d designate as being responsible.”

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” he told them. “Somebody should be designated as being responsible before anything happens so they can at least make some plans as to how the response would be developed.”

The OEM already ran exercises to prepare for major emergencies. However, even though Vashon is as much a part of King County as any other unincorporated area, the exercises did not include the island, because it was assumed that it would be unreachable. According to Michael Cochrane, an OEM map existed on which the island did not even appear, replaced by the letter “N” to indicate the direction north.

Ulatoski and other concerned citizens started to give publicity to the situation, began to build up a viable CERT program using official training manuals and procedures, and worked with the fire department to have someone designated as a responsible party. Living in unincorporated King County, Vashon’s residents did not have control over their own destiny in the aftermath of a disaster. The county did. The county controlled the fire departments, law enforcement, emergency communications and other aspects of response. But many islanders felt strongly that a disaster recovery operation on Vashon—at least during the first 72 hours, or maybe the first week or so—should be led by the local fire chief, who knew the local situation best.

“The fire commissioners all agreed that this was a good idea, and they wrote a letter to King County,” Ulatoski recalled. “They said if King County would designate the fire district as being responsible, they would assume that responsibility.”

However, King County refused, saying the arrangement was too narrow. The islanders needed to put together a group of elected officials that included a couple of King County appointees, so they set up the county-approved Vashon Island Emergency Management Area, which came to be known as VIEMA, finalized in June of 2005. It involved the school district, water district, fire district, the Vashon Island Community Council, and other entities. Bylaws designated the Vashon Fire District No. 13 fire chief as being the incident commander, should any kind of a disaster occur on the island.


Community members step up and sign on


One of the island residents who accompanied Ulatoski on his fact-finding trip to the OEM was retired U.S. Army Special Forces Senior Operations Sergeant Michael Cochrane. He and his wife, Catherine Cochrane, took an active role in matters from the beginning. Together, they developed, refined, and still lead Vashon’s CERT program with expertise, efficiency, and dedication—a huge commitment of their time. Michael Cochrane’s words paint a sobering picture of the situation their community could face if “the big one”—a catastrophic earthquake of the magnitude possible in the Pacific Northwest—occurs.

 “You have to look at what’s on the other side,” Cochrane said. “In south Seattle you have a major shipping port. You have millions of gallons worth of chemicals. You have tankers, huge highways and bridges, airports, critical infrastructure everywhere.”

He described a nightmarish vision of destruction. Emergency response workers on the mainland would certainly not forget about people on the islands in Puget Sound, but Cochrane posed the question, “Where do you think you’re going to find the resources to deal with broken overpasses, bridges and freeways gone, piers down, ships listing, a minor tsunami rolling through? The priorities are to stop the chemicals from burning, take care of mass casualties. They’re not going to get to us for a while.”

A large disaster might mean assigning ferries to higher priorities. Docks could also be destroyed. Since the island has no vital infrastructure of its own, the likelihood of receiving any help from the mainland would be very low, especially within the first 24 hours. And the likelihood of its firefighters and emergency medical workers being overwhelmed would be very high. According to Ulatoski, it could take FEMA three days to even begin to organize after a major event, which is why he believes people should not just assume government authorities will show up quickly to take care of them.

Cochrane said, “We needed a trained group of civilians who would be willing to work together to augment the facilities and to work under the direction of the fire department to assist them in disaster recovery operations.” Properly trained civilian volunteers can essentially function as auxiliary responders to do certain tasks, keeping highly trained firefighters and emergency medical technicians free to perform the most vital duties, thereby leveraging and maximizing their response capabilities.


 Disaster Medical Training: splinting.


The challenges of organizing and training the crew

After the approval by the fire commissioners and the VIEMA board, the Vashon fire chief officially became the incident commander in the event of a disaster, and plans for a local emergency response organization could begin to move forward. Ulatoski said, “Once he had that responsibility, then he immediately began to assist us. We have a very limited volunteer and firefighting base on the island. If we were going to have such an organization it would have to be an organization of volunteers.”

After any catastrophic event, civilians inevitably try to help. But their efforts can result in them suffering injuries, or even death. The idea behind CERT was to properly train civilians to assist in ways that would be safer and more successful. The concept originated with the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985 and then caught the attention of FEMA. Recognizing its value, in 1993 FEMA made the course available nationwide.


      CERT trainees practice blanket carries. Photo by Catherine Cochrane


Creating a CERT program involves putting together an operations center and command post, or posts, from which teams would be dispatched and to which they would return. It means training team members in such areas as treatment of injuries and mass casualties, damage assessment, reporting, search and rescue, fire suppression, terrorism, disaster psychology, and more. FEMA CERT training is typically 32 hours, but Vashon’s program requires 40 because it includes a more comprehensive curriculum. There is also an 8-hour exercise during which trainees are drilled and tested. Those who complete the course receive a certificate.

Registered Emergency Workers, like Fitzpatrick, have extra qualifications. They must take certain other types of courses over an additional six-month period, after which they receive a card. Their REW status remains in effect for two years before it needs to be updated. The classification of Registered Emergency Worker originates with the state (see WAC Title 118-04) but the administration and implementation of the program is a county responsibility.

When asked about the level of interest, Michael Cochrane acknowledged that sometimes too few candidates come forward to warrant running a class. He said, “Generally speaking, we want to have about 20 people show up, because we have a fairly steep attrition rate. So by the second or third week, you’ve probably lost at least a quarter of them.” Other times, especially after people hear about disasters in the news, interest peaks.

The Cochranes create training schedules, set up classes, and handle the management chores related to the organization, which has graduated a total of 210 people since they took on the job in 2003. However, the responsibility of training people involves additional concerns, such as liability.

“Early on in the game, we realized there are tremendous liabilities to doing training,” Michael Cochrane said, “Training obviously has components to it that are realistic enough so that you can get the value out of it. But if it’s realistic, and it’s disaster training, then there’s the potential for someone to get injured. In order for you to be able to then employ the people that you put into a program like CERT, you have to have something that’s going to protect the people who participate.”



The local fire district does not have the legal authority, money, or insurance to do that and, in fact, it is not even possible to insure a CERT program. Fortunately, Vashon’s CERT volunteers are eligible for protection from the state through Title 118-04 of the Washington Administrative Code, which concerns emergency workers. Eligibility requires that civilians are trained through a valid, approved plan—which FEMA’s CERT training is—a plan that meets the objectives of the official Community Emergency Management Plans that exist at both the county level and the Vashon Fire District 13 level. (There are two CEMPs because of the anomaly of the island’s fire district having been granted local control by the OEM, due to the island’s potential for isolation.) Another requirement for protection under Title 118-04 is continuing education, to assure that trainees are kept up to date and competent.

Civilians are trained to meet specific objectives of the CEMPs, objectives that require particular training methods. For example, Cochrane mentioned that search and rescue requires knowing how to conduct searches and how to do the rescue, which involves medical assistance, stabilization, transport and so forth.

Instructors come from such sources as the fire department, including Emergency Medical Technicians, and graduates of FEMA’s CERT “Train the Trainers” course. Fitzpatrick praised the training he received. “It’s not overly demanding, but realistic,” he said. “When you become trained in these fundamentals, you will acquire the skills, knowledge and ability to act responsibly and effectively in the event of any type of emergency. You gain confidence, and then you begin to function in a professional manner.”

 Cribbing class.  Photo by Catherine Cochrane


Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center and Command Posts

An Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is located in a large room in the island’s main fire station in the village of Vashon. Four smaller satellite fire stations have their own command centers, all of which would report to the EOC, where Rick Wallace manages the volunteers in the EOC, a position first held by Ulatoski who now serves as assistant manager.  


 Commnad Post, photo by Catherine Cochrane


When it comes to emergency communications between the EOC and outlying command posts, local ham radio operators would serve a critical role. Most are members of the Vashon-Maury Island Radio Club (VMIRC) and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). Each fire station has a ham radio cabinet set up and ready to go.

“You open the cabinet, take out the antenna, put it on top, turn the radio on, select the appropriate channel, and go on the air,” Cochrane said. “It’s beautiful.”

With a grant for $10,000 from the county—from a one-time infusion of money originating with the federal government as part of Homeland Security, they outfitted every station with a cache of emergency gear specifically for CERT use. They designed kits, stored in 80-gallon containers, which can be thrown into a pickup truck and taken to any place where they might need to set up command post and medical triage operation.

A command post consists of a minimum of four people—two ham radio people and two CERT people. But if they work shifts of 12 hours on and 12 hours off, you would need eight people. With five stations, that means 40. So, if a disaster happens, would the Vashon CERT have an adequate number of members available to show up at the command centers at any given time? Some could be away from the island or among the badly injured. Depending on the time, day, and season, logistics could be extremely complex. On a summer weekend, many more people arrive on the island, raising the number of those potentially injured or needing help.

“You hope for the best and plan for the worst,” said Catherine Cochrane. Of all those who have been trained and own “Go Kits”—backpacks filled with equipment like dust masks, gloves, a hardhat with light, raingear, eye protection, and more—their best bet would be their 32 Registered Emergency Workers, like Fitzpatrick, who have shown true commitment.

It all begins with individual, and neighborhood, preparedness

“The first thing is awareness,” Michael Cochrane said. “It takes a lot to push people into some kind of activity that is directly related to emergency response, because most people do not do very much in the way of emergency planning. They barely manage to have an emergency kit in their car and their home.”

When individuals are prepared, the limited number of responders can focus their efforts on those who need the most help, not the general public. “That allows those people who are prepared, to hunker down and not be part of the problem, but just take care of themselves,” Ulatoski said. “That eliminates about 60-70 % of the problem.” Because of the island’s isolation, he recommends citizens plan to spend at least a week and possibly ten days without help.



In addition to assisting Wallace at the EOC, Ulatoski runs the NERO program, a facet of individual preparedness, but at the neighborhood level. He defines a NERO, as “an informal voluntary organization of residents in a specific area or neighborhood who join together to prepare for and help each other in a systematic manner.”

NEROs would serve as critical components in the island's damage assessment and response system.  In an organized manner, individuals would check on the welfare of their neighbors, document injuries and significant property damage, and report to the nearest command post, enabling the limited number of first responders to go where help is needed most. Prior to an event, NEROs educate, encourage stockpling of supplies, identify potential dangers, and designate leaders who will be responsible for reporting. The ideal situation  is when each NERO, of about 20 homes, has a trained CERT member as a resident. But even after all the publickty, only about 15% of the island households belong to a NERO.

Most people, when it comes to disasters, Ulatoski said, "would prefer to be in denial.  So it's just a question of plugging away and finding leaders in various sections of the comunity who get inspired enough to contact their neighbors and see if they can pull something together.  It's a ver informal structure." To start a NERO, someone invites their neighbors to a casual gathering to hear a presentation and discuss some plans.    

The NERO would report to the local fire station’s command center, which would in turn report to the EOC. If telephones and cell phones are down, and roads impassable, all such tasks could require walking. By spring of 2013, Vashon will have an equestrian CERT in place. But one way or another, information would be relayed.


Vashon's equestrian CERT.  Photo by Catherine Cochrane


Cochrane said, “Now you’re talking about integrating that information into an island-wide scenario where you can begin to appreciate the extent of the damage, the status of neighborhoods, where help is needed, and how to distribute very scarce resources.”

It takes teamwork to row a lifeboat

Living on an island does create a situation of greater interdependence. Even if an individual is prepared, if the community is not prepared, that factor diminishes that individual’s ability to survive. To the benefit of all, many dedicated individuals have committed themselves to this effort, too many to mention individually.

“For a group of volunteers, we have a very tight knit Emergency Operations Center,” Ulatoski said. “And with the CERT that Michael and Catherine have put together, and the ARES people and the Medical Reserve  people and all those folks, we would be able to function to a degree in the aftermath of a major disaster.” He called the fire department’s encouragement and help “absolutely amazing.” Assistant Fire Chief Bob Larsen has been invaluable as Vashon Fire and Rescue’s liaison person who works with the CERT program.

The island’s CERT has become a model of organization and efficiency, recognized by both the county and state. It received the Washington State Governor’s 2012 Volunteer Service Award and the King County Executive’s 2011 Award for Community Preparedness. Michael Cochrane’s military background gave him experience in teamwork, small unit training and small unit deployment, which makes this a perfect fit for him. Catherine Cochrane’s knowledge of training, computer skills and grant writing are among her many invaluable contributions.


 Michael Cochrane, Catherine Cochrane, and former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire


VashonBePrepared serves as a non-profit umbrella organization, pulling together all the emergency resources on the island for the convenience of its residents. VBP keeps communication flowing between different partner organizations, and the public, gathers input, helps to formulate ideas, and dispenses helpful and informative literature. Even though it does much good, it does not function in the event of a disaster.

Wallace, in his management role at the EOC, is described by Fitzpatrick as a dynamic leader who has dedicated many hours and produced massive amounts of materials. Ulatoski said of Wallace, “He has done a wonderful job in the more formal aspects of planning and working with King County. He is extremely dedicated to moving this forward.”

Then there are all the good and dedicated citizens like Fitzpatrick, and so many others, who give their time and energy to this effort. He is amazed that, “Little Vashon Island became the poster child of the state.” Although putting it all together took a long and careful process, Vashon’s emergency preparedness plan could surely mean the difference between life and death, not only of individuals, but of the community as it is today.

“Can it be done? You bet,” Michael Cochrane said. “Does it take a lot of motivated people who are willing to spend their time, energy, and effort, and a lot of support from the community, and people who are willing to train, and so on? It takes a bunch.”

Ulatoski summed it up by saying, “The most you can do is to prepare yourself the best you can, recognizing these two factors: 1.) Disasters can happen, and what has happened in the past does not necessarily mean that it’s the worst that can happen. 2.) Bad things can happen to good people.

For now, life floats along relatively peacefully on Vashon-Maury Island. And while citizens joke about living on “The Rock” and their “Lifeboat Vashon” mentality, some of them work hard to make sure that lifeboat can stand up to fate’s roughest seas.

Copyright 2013 Candace J. Brown

 All training photos provided by Vashion CERT




HOW TO START A CERT – Information from Citizen Corps, U.S. government



Candace Brown is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.

Website: http://candacebrown.net   Good Life Northwest Blog: http://goodlifenw.blogspot.com



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