INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - A first of its kind review is underway on one of the largest emergency incidents in Indianapolis history. A city-backed efficiency team is now evaluating the joint response to last year's house explosion at Richmond Hill.
The explosion in November 2012 killed Dion and Jennifer Longworth, and left more than 80 homes damaged or destroyed.
Now, eight months after the blast, agencies involved in the response to it are working to find out what went right and where improvements can be made for future disaster responses.
As the embers of the fire that resulted from the explosion were still smoldering, Richmond Hill was quickly surrounded by service. Police officers and firefighters were joined by federal agents, the county health department, animal control, and even employees from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, among many others.
Many of those agencies held their own "after action" reviews of their responses in the months following the explosion. But, on Tuesday, each department and agency gathered in the same room together for the first time to begin asking a critical set of questions.
"We want to know what went right. But, what could we have done better? What would we like to have had better? And then, we look for improvements," Indianapolis Director of Internal Audit Performance Manny Mendez told the assembled group Tuesday morning.
Nineteen local, state and federal agencies joined to form the efficiency team, together with local churches that provided aid following the explosion, private citizens and residents of Richmond Hill. Team leader Al Stovall, a Deputy Chief at the Indianapolis Fire Department, called the assembled group historic.
"I cannot recall a time where we've included this number of different groups in a single event. It's a unique experience to have (all these voices together). And, I found a lot of value in it. This (is) an effort to review the process and include additional stakeholders that previously weren't included in maybe those first discussions," he said.
The group agreed to split the evaluation into three distinct areas.
"The way we approached this was that there is three components. There's the response component, the recovery component, and the investigative component," Stovall said.
The groups will focus on staffing and expenditures, communication with DPS staff and the media, the process for homeowners to access their property, and recovery and equipment usage during the incident.
A general invitation was made for citizen participation, though representatives for Richmond Hill residents did not participate in Tuesday's meeting. They will be invited to subsequent meetings, Stovall and Indianapolis Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Valerie Washington said.
Response to those residents was a part of the focus of Tuesday's meeting.
"We think we maybe could report out better. One of the lessons learned that we do want to focus on is how to communicate information, so when a major incident happens, how do we let the citizens and the neighborhoods know right away, making sure they have contact information and things like that," said Washington.
Some of those lessons have already been put into place.
A new policy to hold a single "command point of contact" got its first test as emergency crews responded to last month's large warehouse fire on Belmont Avenue on the near southwest side.
"Right off the bat, we had a single point of contact, and that was our Department of Homeland Security Chief Gary Coons. We were able to coordinate resources. And, we think that was a result of some of the lessons learned from Richmond Hill," Washington said.
But, responses to other issues at Richmond Hill are still being analyzed. Did rescue crews have the right equipment? Did the city respond quickly enough to requests from residents? Who helped look for lost pets, and once they were found, what process was used to identify them and return them to their rightful owners?
They are all among the many questions the team plans to answer in the weeks ahead.
"We want to serve the community as best we can," Stovall said. "And, one of the ways we can do that is to not rest on our laurels and always challenge ourselves to do a better job."
Tuesday's efficiency team meeting focused on the initial response to the blast. Two additional meetings have been scheduled over the next two weeks.
The team set a goal of ensuring that best practices are documented and will develop a process for setting up a joint information center, which will include a timeline and overview of events which would require a Joint Information Center to be set up, according to Stovall.
Once the meetings are completed, the efficiency team will issue a set of recommendations that will be passed on to Public Safety Director Troy Riggs. He'll then study the recommendations and issue a public report, including a proposed "action plan" by the end of next month.
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