County prepares for emergencies as part of new plan

If a tornado touches down in Johnson County, firefighters know where to search first, police officers know where to set up a mobile command post and a Red Cross representative can be reached with one phone call.

The same goes for flood, drought, disease outbreak, chemical and terrorist attacks and school shootings. The likelihood of each event has been studied, past incidents have been reviewed to pinpoint areas that needed improvement, and hours of training, planning and predicting the unpredictable have gone into the county’s new emergency response plan.

The plan is a countywide collaboration that puts police officers and firefighters exactly where they’re supposed to be in the event of an emergency. The plan also lists all schools and every facility that has hazardous chemicals, Johnson County Emergency Management Director Stephanie Sichting said.

The most likely event to hit Johnson County would be a natural disaster, and severe weather is the main concern, especially in the summer, Sichting said. So the county focused much of the new emergency plan around lessons learned from its most significant natural disaster of the past 10 years.

When major flooding hit Johnson County in 2008, Sichting had to contact the Indiana Emergency Operations Center and it had to contact the Red Cross. With the new plan, she can call her Red Cross representative and start the aid process for residents, Sichting said.

Also, the emergency management office had only one phone line during the 2008 floods. Now, the department has six lines for residents to call in a natural disaster, which will help Sichting and officials understand the magnitude of an event and whether the Red Cross is needed immediately.

“Our county and city departments are more prepared than they were in 2008,” Sichting said. “We found strengths and weaknesses in our response and rescue efforts. When you go through it once, you learn a lot.”

Officials used experience from previous natural disasters as the foundation for the new plan, which was finalized last month.

For example, reviewing tornadoes helped the committee plan in areas where a tornado has never touched down. Officials mapped out a debris path and identified schools and important buildings along it, and they designated particular areas for command posts for search and rescue. They also identified buildings with weak infrastructure and that contain dangerous chemicals, so officials and emergency workers know the most vulnerable areas in a natural disaster.

That way, when emergency workers arrive at a scene where a tornado just touched down, they know which buildings to search first and how to mark buildings and properties that have been searched so no time is wasted.

Water teams and dive teams train with each other, in case flooding hits the county again. If there is a chemical spill, the Greenwood Fire Department has a hazardous materials team, Chief James Sipes said.

All local police departments work together throughout the year on various disaster relief plans, but one in particular is a school shooting scenario. Training together and knowing other officers is vital in the event of a school shooting, when all police are trained to immediately go to the school, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said.

“We train together for these types of incidents now. We work together, and we want everyone to know each other so we are not confronting a person in a school carrying a gun who might be an off-duty officer,” Cox said.

State and federal law enforcement also recently trained for a terrorist attack at the Greenwood Park Mall. And local police and fire departments have trained for similar events at large gatherings like the Johnson County fair and Greenwood’s Freedom Festival, Sichting said.

If such a scenario were to take place, police know where to set up command, firefighters have materials to set up on-site emergency rooms, and both coordinate with hospitals so they know where to take the wounded, Sipes said.

A new threat to public safety is disease outbreaks, such as Ebola, which are the newest addition to the emergency plan and training, Sichting said. In 2014, during the Ebola crisis, Sichting and local law enforcement, fire departments and city representatives discussed and planned for the possibility of a disease hitting the county.

Hospitals where the sick could be taken were noted, an ambulance was stripped down creating more room for people to be transported to hospitals and firefighters trained and created a safe way to assist those affected by a disease without contaminating themselves and others, Sipes said.

“We would not have trained as much on (a disease like) Ebola if it had not arrived, but we have prepared for everything,” Sipes said. “We train regularly. You think (disaster) will never happen and then it does, but we stand ready to respond.”

Corey Elliot is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2719.