Windsor Green fire prompts emergency call system, hands-on emergency drill in Horry County

jrodriguez@thesunnews.comMarch 15, 2014 

Flames and smoke fill the forest as 110 condominiums in 26 buildings are destroyed in the Windsor Green community of Carolina Forest. The fire left 189 people displaced and countless pets missing. The county has hosted a simulated emergency drill, began regulating burning in the county, contracted with a company to provide an emergency call system and has plans to regulate future development to prevent a fire of Windsor Green’s magnitude from happening again.

BY JANET BLACKMON MORGAN — jblackmon@thesunnews.com Buy Photo

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Horry County officials have had about a year to ponder what it could improve on should a tragedy like Windsor Green occur again, but they haven’t been just sitting back and scratching their heads.

The county hosted a simulated emergency drill, began regulating burning in the county, contracted with a company to provide an emergency call system and has plans to regulate future development to prevent a fire of Windsor Green’s magnitude from happening again.

As with any major event in Horry County, the county put out an after action report that examines the good and bad of its handling of the Windsor Green fire. It is designed to help departments improve on their actions should a similar event happen in the future, and sometimes creates policy and rule changes.

In the Windsor Green After Action Report, improvements in communication, management of on-scene and anticipated resources, and properly equipping the police department were among problems that Horry County identified as things that could have been improved at the time of the March 16, 2013 fire at Windsor Green condominiums.

“There’s been a lot of changes that have been made,” said Randy Webster, director of emergency management for the county. “A lot of good changes.”

In February, the county, along with state ad federal agencies, conducted a program called Coastal Response. It was a simulated plane crash that put county emergency departments in a fake emergency situation, but allowed them to use skills the departments have worked on since Windsor Green.

For instance, Webster said, the county has developed a better incident command structure because of the fire. It addressed the county’s need to be more organized at a catastrophe.

Coastal Response was as hands on as county officials could make it, with a trailer-turned-fuselage and dozens of plastic inflatable dummies strewn across a field that acted as deceased passengers of the plane. “Survivors” of the fake crash were covered in blankets as they were escorted from the crash scene to nearby buses. Even helicopters were used to signify how survivors would be transported to area hospitals.

“We were able to validate a lot of those changes that have been made up to that point,” Webster said. “When you look at it, huge things.”

Efforts are still being made to allow more communities within the county to become a fire-adapted community, which is a community that “takes responsibility for its wildfire risk.”

Horry County leads the state in the number of Firewise communities, seven, and nine more communities, including Windsor Green, are exploring implementation of the program.The Firewise program establishes fire protection benchmarks people and communities must do to reduce the danger of losses from wildfires. Things such as not using pine stray or other combustible mulch within three feet of a house may be required for a Firewise certification.

The county’s planning department is also looking at a defensible space requirement for new development. Defensible space would require a water buffer to separate wooded areas and new development, which would prevent wildfires from reaching homes.

“The planning department is working to determine the best management practices for developing in wildfire prone areas and will include recommendations in the update to the Natural Resources Element of the Horry County comprehensive plan later this year,” said Lisa Bourcier, the county’s spokeswoman. “Planning is currently researching other wildfire prone communities to identify how they have established, implemented, and enforced defensible space, and whether those measures have been effective.”

Webster said the county began instituting burn bans, like one last week, which outlaws the burning of debris on windy days.

In the fall, the county instituted a CodeRED system, which gives county officials the ability to deliver pre-recorded emergency telephone notification/information messages to targeted areas or the entire county at a rate of up to 60,000 calls per hour, according to a press release issued by the county. The system allows you to enter as many phone numbers as you need for other family members or employees at your business by re-entering your information. The system also allows you to enter email addresses as the emergency notification can be broadcasted by phone, text or email, the release stated.

Webster said there is still more work to be done.

“There’s been a lot that has been accomplished that, I think, we can all be proud of,” he said.

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.

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