WASHINGTON — Derek Thomas, an officer with the Washington Police Department, remembers that fateful day in 2004 when a massive tornado hit Roanoke and all but leveled the Parsons facility there.
That weather event prompted him to take weather spotter training through the National Weather Service each year. But nothing could have prepared him for what he saw five years ago in Washington. He knew, through all the weather training and the annual departmental training, that such a storm was possible, but he never though it would actually happen in Washington.
Across the river, Tom Geraci was working that day as a paramedic with Advanced Medical Transport. He saw the funnel cloud go over his house on the Peoria side of the river and then the radio started to squawk with requests for help from Pekin, a market served by AMT. A little bit later, the call came in for help for Washington.
"We were ramping up in Peoria because of the Pekin tornado, and then Washington hit," he said.
The massive devastation and the size of the tornadoes that hit Pekin and Washington that Sunday morning, Nov. 17, 2013, changed the way first responders prepare and train. Yes, the critical incident protocols are still out there. Yes, they might work with the National Guard in a mock drill, but the difference is that now they have a sense of realism, as it did happen, Thomas said.
"It's not always a sunny day here in Illinois. This can happen here," he said.
It was the third tornado, and the most destructive, for Jeff Lower, Tazewell County's chief deputy sheriff.
"I am very proud of the response that we were able to provide during the disaster, we had 26 deputies on scene within 30 minutes, myself included. I believe the experiences that we have had in previous tornado events, along with on the job training and education, gave us the ability to respond in force quickly," he said.
Geraci remembered that day saw AMT test its new notification system for medics. It worked. He also remembers how the challenge was to provide immediate help for Washington and for those affected in Pekin without disrupting service in Peoria. So they used the "bump and cover." AMT pulled some of their crews from Iowa to help cover in Peoria while the Peoria and Pekin crews shifted to help those affected by the tornado. It's why, Geraci said, some might have seen a lot of yellow ambulances that weekend.
AMT sent a lot of vans over as they found that many just needed a ride and didn't have a medical emergency. They now have in their protocols having mechanics and others called in as tornadoes leave debris in the road that can stop trucks dead in their tracks.
Communication was vital during the early and later days. The Community Organizations Assisting in Disaster sprang up as a way to coordinate people who wanted to donated items. They moved a few times from churches to their eventual home at storefronts in a shopping center. Pam Tomka, the group's donation coordinator, said the group started as a way to coordinate the truckloads of clothing and water that was coming in through donations. By having everyone communicating and talking, the process worked smoother. They still meet quarterly with groups such as the American Red Cross, emergency response teams (EMA directors from all three area counties), several churches, health departments, Peoria County Humane Society and Lions Clubs.
AMT also now pushes its 211 information system as a way for people to find out what streets would be open or closed in the event of such an emergency. The system, co-sponsored by the United Way and AMT, allows people to call 211 instead of 911 as a way to get a "well check" or to find out non-emergency information, thus freeing up the emergency lines.
Thomas, at the Washington Police Department, said he's increased his extracurricular training to include more advanced weather training. The idea is to have someone who knows as much about weather as possible without being a meteorologist on staff, "just in case." So he attended an advanced weather training seminar. He also has weather apps on his phone, so that when seconds count, he can be more prepared.
The storm also made Washington realize that their dispatchers — who have since moved because of a consolidation effort — were upstairs. So when people went downstairs, they couldn't function. In the wake of the storm, dispatchers were given portable radios so they could do their work while in the basement. A system was set up in a downstairs room that allowed staff to set off sirens if they were taking cover.
Lower said his Tazewell department can now tap into the state's mutual aid system known as ILEAS, or Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System.
"This mutual aid system has given us, and other members, the ability to call on other agencies equipment and experience to come together as one team when it is needed most," he said.
Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.