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Report: agencies struggled with communication during Husky fire

Communication proved to be a challenge for many of the emergency agencies during the April 27 fire at Husky Energy oil refinery. (file / News Tribune)

Emergency officials struggled to relay accurate evacuation orders to the public and experienced intermittent issues communicating between agencies during the April 26 explosion and fire at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior, according to an 18-page report prepared by Douglas County Emergency Management and and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

The "Summary of Findings/Improvement Plan" took input from responding agencies to highlight what went well and what could have gone better.

"Incident Command had a lot being thrown at them and dealing with many things; difficult to get information out," the report said.

James Anderson, UWEX Douglas County Department Head, hosted a discussion, or After Action Review Meeting, in May with agencies involved in the April 26 explosion, fire and evacuation. He said the document outlines that discussion, which focused on "What was supposed to happen? What worked well? What could be improved?"

The Twin Ports Action Alliance, a group demanding the Husky refinery stop using hydrogen fluoride, obtained the working draft in an open records request through the UWEX.

Keith Kesler, Douglas County Director of Emergency Management Communications, said although the meeting and reported highlighted some communication issues, he's pleased with how agencies worked together.

"Things went pretty much the way we would have expected them to go ... we really didn't see anything damning," Kesler said.

"Confusing" evacuation zones

Although the first fire, spurred by the 10 a.m. explosion, was initially under control, a shrapnel-punctured tank spewed asphalt, which then reignited at about 12:15 p.m. By 12:43 p.m., an evacuation order was issued over fear of the release of hydrogen fluoride — the worst-case scenario.

The order called for an evacuation 10 miles south of the refinery and 3 miles to the east and west of the refinery — a 6-mile by 10-mile box. In all other directions, orders called for an evacuation zone of a 1-mile radius around the refinery.

That wasn't entirely clear to residents and agencies alike.

"The evacuation zone was deemed confusing by many agencies," the report said.

Some agencies and government officials took to social media to spread the word, but shared different interpretations of the evacuation zones, usually that the evacuation was three miles in all directions and 10 miles to the south rather than the official 1 mile radius.

"Social media misinterpreted the evacuation zone and led citizens and business to evacuate that may not have necessarily been in the evacuation zone," the report said.

Kesler said he believes the map may have confused people.

"My guess is some people looked at that map and just drew a 3-mile radius," Kesler said.

Instead of trying to clarify evacuation zones, Kesler said emergency officials decided it was best to over evacuate and avoid additional confusion.

"We're not going to try to turn it around for fear of if we do, there are people who are in the evacuation zone that may misinterpret it and come back," Kesler said. "You're better off getting more people out of the way."

A solution repeatedly presented in the report was designating one public information officer, a point person who could update the public and media with information such as evacuation zones.

"One Public Information Officer would have alleviated a lot of the communication issues that occurred," the report said. "One person who is abreast of all information to provide to all other agencies and the public would prove beneficial."

Communication gap between agencies

In addition to looking at communication with the public on evacuation zones, the report also examined communication gaps between responding emergency agencies.

In one example, the report said county health department officials were not immediately told about the incident and instead learned about it from their children.

"Health Department first learned of event and scope of event from agency employees that have children at Superior Public Schools," the report said.

Kesler said he "can't really interpret what that statement meant," but said some employees may have received a message from the School District of Superior about the incident before their supervisors could tell them.

"That agency was notified right away," Kesler said. "There may be employees that didn't find out right away."

The report noted the department should have been alerted sooner.

"Notify Public Health earlier when an event poses a potential public health threat, rather than waiting for the incident command structure to be activated," the report said.

The report also explained that LifeLink, a medical helicopter, couldn't establish air-to-ground communications because it was given a channel that did not exist.

Meanwhile, communication with St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth was also strained.

"9-1-1 one-way pager in St. Luke's Emergency Room was only connected to St. Louis County, MN," the report said adding later, "St. Luke's Hospital had no direct point of contact for hospital to get reliable, updated information."

A St. Luke's spokesperson did not respond to comment Friday evening.

The report explained some of the communication issues highlighted "technological barriers" between Wisconsin and Minnesota agencies.

Kesler said those were already being addressed prior to the refinery fire.

Overall, Kesler maintained the incident and report showed agencies were prepared for this type of emergency.

"What it shows is that the work that we have done in the past about communicating with our neighboring a partnering agencies worked," Kesler said. "We had the resources."

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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