Due for an earthquake: County practices responses, preparedness to potential earthquakes

Did you know every 77 years, the state of Montana will likely experience a 7.0 magnitude earthquake? According to statistics presented from the Madison County Emergency Management’s office during an earthquake exercise, the state is about due for an earthquake.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when,” said Joe Brummel with the emergency management office.

On Nov. 30, the office of emergency management hosted an earthquake tabletop exercise with various members and organizations within the county. Sixty people were in attendance as members of the local fire departments, sheriff’s office, county commissioners, public health, Red Cross volunteers and more, all came together to talk earthquake preparedness.

“The whole purpose is to get everyone together and get the discussion going,” said Tetrault, emergency management officer and fire warden for the county. “Part of the discussion was to know what one would being doing in that scenario and know what other groups and organizations offer.”

The last 7.0 or greater quake our region felt was the infamous Hebgen Lake earthquake in 1959 which saw 28 fatalities, hit 7.3 on the Richter scale, caused $11 million in highway and timber damage and created Quake Lake. The most recent earthquake felt within region was a 5.8 magnitude quake in western Montana – the strongest within the past 20 years.  

Before setting up the scenario and beginning the discussion, Brummel informed attendees that 75 percent of the buildings in Madison County are pre-seismic.

According to Hazus methodology study, which Brummel and Tetrault said is not always accurate, 23 structures in Madison County would see complete damage in the event of a large earthquake.



For the exercise, folks were separated into varying roles. Representatives from the Red Cross sat at a table deemed “shelter” while commissioners Ron Nye and Dan Allhands sat at the table deemed “emergency operations center.” There were also tables to represent infrastructure, incident command, medical personnel and public health.

After dividing into groups, Brummel started off the tabletop exercise, informing the group of a mock 5.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Virginia City.

“It’s happened over Memorial Day weekend, opening weekend here in Virginia City,” Brummel said as set the scene. “What’s our initial concern?”

From there, the room filled with chatter as each group identified what their first steps would be in the event of an earthquake before presenting their findings.

Madison County Sheriff Roger Thompson spoke on behalf of the incident command table, which was full of first responders from some of Madison County’s finest.

“Our first step is to check our family and make sure they’re okay,” said Thompson. “You’re going to be more effective in your job if you know your family is safe.”

Thompson followed up with doing an initial check on the tourists in town and assessing the situation.

“From there, we start establishing communication and start building intel,” he said.

Jake Stewart with the Madison Ranger District was the spokesperson for the second incident command table and said their initial responses and concerns were to establish alternate communication options and assess their ability to page out for mutual aide.

Medical personnel from the Madison Valley Medical Center reported that per their policy, all MVMC personnel are to report to work after checking with their families in the event of a disaster. 

The discussion moved back and forth throughout the evening as more details became available, providing for more communication within the various groups.



During the exercise, one thing seemed to stand out as high importance when it comes to any sort of disaster – communication.

“We want to get as much information out as we can,” said Thompson on the second round of discussion, adding establishing a liaison for communication efforts is important.

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