The evacuation of the fairgrounds last year during the 2012 Washington Town and Country Fair due to severe weather prompted emergency personnel to review procedures to determine if there were areas that could be improved.
Although close to 12,000 citizens were evacuated safely that Saturday night with only one injury, due to blowing debris, there was a lot of gridlock trying to get all motorists safely out of the parking lots, and getting the buses to the loading zone.
“Since that night, we have continued to look at our evacuation plans, our traffic flow, really everything, to see what we could improve on,” said Al Behr, chairman of this year’s Fair.
“Safety is always a priority,” Behr said.
A committee consisting of command personnel from emergency services and the Fair Board have been meeting since last year’s Fair and agreed to implement a new traffic exit plan each night of the Fair sometime after the Main Stage entertainment ends. This same plan also will be used in the event of an evacuation similar to the 2012 Fair.
Committee members included Behr, Washington Police Chief Ken Hahn, Washington Fire Chief Bill Halmich, Fair Coordinator/Chamber President Jennifer Giesike and others.
Giesike said the plan is not entirely new and has been put into use in the past when large crowds were exiting the fairgrounds after some of the Main Stage shows, but it has been “tweaked” somewhat.
“We really want people to get familiar with the traffic plan so they know what to do if we ever have another emergency and we decided why not utilize it every night after the big shows because it will help get people out of the parking lots much quicker,” she said.
Giesike stressed the exit plan will only be used in the evenings.
Upon implementation of the plan each evening, Grand Avenue will become one-way southbound all the way to Fifth Street.
Hahn said personnel will be assigned at designated locations to direct motorists through the fairgrounds to help facilitate an orderly and efficient flow of traffic, especially when exiting the parking lots.
Motorists picking up kids at the child pickup area on North Park Drive will need to use High Street to West Main to Bernard Street to North Park.
Only parents picking up children will be allowed to make a left onto North Park Drive.
Hahn said this new plan will help empty exiting traffic swiftly and safely.
Giesike and Behr said it’s important for families to have a planned location to meet on the fairgrounds in the event of an emergency.
If the fairgrounds have to be evacuated, parents are encouraged to bring their children and loved ones with them when they go to their vehicles rather than having them to go to the child pickup area.
“What happened last year was that Mom or Dad went to get the car and told the kids to go wait by the pickup, but then they weren’t able to get to the gate because of the traffic and it was a mess,” Giesike said. “So we’re stressing that families don’t separate — everyone should go together to the car.”
Behr also pointed out that the Fair has several emergency shelters on the fairgrounds. These include the Home Economics building and livestock barns.
Tents or other shelters should not be used if there is lightning or high winds, he said.
Behr said cellphone service also was interrupted during last year’s storm which further complicated matters.
This year, there will be a COW or Cellular on Wheels, a portable mobile cellular site that provides temporary network and wireless coverage, on the fairgrounds all five days which should improve service “tremendously,” he said.
“But when there is a storm you just never know what kinds of service will be available and that’s why it’s so important that families have an emergency plan,” Behr said.
The Washington Fair will open Wednesday, Aug. 7, and run through Sunday, Aug. 11, at the city fairgrounds.