Emergency preparedness takes planning, effort
By Sandy Bond
The snow began to fall, softly at first. Rumor had it that the blizzard predicted in early January 1997 might rival the infamous blizzard of 1966, “but we were prepared,” said Don Opie, recenlty retired War Hawk and Emergency Preparedness Director.
“The purpose of War Hawk and Emergency Management is to connect all medical personnel and emergency personnel, including city, town and county law enforcement and fire departments and even amateur radio personnel, with one another. We train together, it’s people helping people.”
One of the biggest challenges we face in this area is weather-related, he said, including blizzards, tornadoes, drought and big and small prairie fires. War Hawk was established to include the five counties of Walworth, Potter, Ziebach, Campbell, and Dewey and two reservations, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River.
On March 24, 1966, a story concerning the aftermath of the blizzard in the Mobridge Tribune read, “A county civil defense plan, which includes some advance thought regarding how to organize and what to do in the event of a nuclear disaster can pay off during other emergencies.”
“That fact was clearly demonstrated during the blizzard of 1966, which left many South Dakota communities isolated,” Civil Defense and Rural Emergency Preparedness specialist, Art Vandall, at South Dakota State University at Brookings, said.
During early 1966, a radio network was installed linking all civil defense directors in the five-county area and the two reservations with district headquarters. According to the Tribune, “from law enforcement officials to school buses, they were all equipped with CD radios. During the first two days following the blizzard, the civil defense radios provided the only reliable communication from the section of the stricken area. Almost all telephones were out for an extended period. Radio-equipped school buses were used to follow bulldozers clearing roads. As soon as one area was cleared, the radios made it possible to dispatch the snow removal equipment to new locations. In some areas where plans had not been worked out in advance, the bulk of the organization work fell upon the shoulders of one or two individuals. This didn’t happen in counties with a good organizational plans.
“Because they were organized for such emergencies, the area was able to secure equipment and began digging out up to 24 hours earlier than other areas,” Vandall said.
Don Opie remembers the infamous blizzards well.
“In ’97, the Mobridge radio dispatch center handled the major portion of communications,” he said. “The State Emergency Management center in Pierre played a major part in getting us large equipment such as dozers to areas in which they were needed.”
Although there were hundreds upon hundreds of head of livestock lost, the people kept working together to restore normalcy, he said.
Opie is the son of Catherine and Harold Opie. He and his two younger brothers grew up in Aberdeen. Graduating from Aberdeen Central High School in 1958, and passionately committed to public service, Opie replaced the late Jack Hand and Bob Horn as Mobridge Volunteer Fire Department Chief in 1973; by 1981, Opie was in charge of one of the biggest radio-controlled systems in the state. He retired from all public service in 2012.
Approximately three years ago, War Hawk Civil Defense had a change in directors according to Walworth County First Deputy Josh Boll, who has been assisting with emergency management since June. Ted Schwitzer took Opie’s spot as director of War Hawk and Opie became solely Walworth County Emergency Manager. In January, Walworth County Commissioners named Adam Fiedler as director of Emergency Management.
A 2004 graduate of Selby Area High School, Fiedler like Opie and Boll has a deep commitment to public service. The youngest of nine born to Gary and Barb Fiedler of Glenham, Adam began service to his community while still in high school as a member of the Glenham Volunteer Fire Department as his dad and older brother Nick before him.
The system has been proactive, Boll said.
With available resources strained and equipment outdated, thanks to the diligent efforts of Opie and Boll, the system has been successful in its quest for federal grants through Homeland Security to make mandated updates.
“In the last several months we have received $71, 000 in grants for emergency management,” Boll said, “$30,000 in narrow banding radios and radio equipment alone, which allows all agencies to communicate, and an additional $41,000 to upgrade all radio and corresponding equipment.
“Rural emergency preparedness boils down to the development of a plan whereby local government and local people carry on in the most efficient manner possible,” Opie said.
“I realize that I have big shoes to fill,” Fiedler said, “Don has an amazing amount of knowledge; but with him and Josh to guide me, I hope to do them proud.”
“In regard to the future of emergency preparedness,” Opie said, “you don’t plan alone and you don’t respond alone. We need everybody-it’s not ‘I,’ it’s ‘we!’”