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Emergency drill begins

October 21, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

The large-scale emergency response in the city Monday evening was a test - it was only a test.

And though Hagerstown Fire Department Acting Chief Richard Kipe said it wasn't a pass-fail test, he did characterize the emergency drill at the Long Meadow Shopping Center as a great opportunity for responders to practice for a real disaster.

Monday's drill was the first in a three-day training activity being conducted by officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 3 offices. The multi-agency training activity, which involved about 100 area responders and cost $70,000 to put together, focuses on testing and evaluating various emergency response functions to an area affected by a significant emergency incident, in this case finding a weapon of mass destruction.

"We hold these to help responders deal with situations and make them as real as possible," said David B. Polish, EPA community involvement coordinator.

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As the scenario went Monday, a white van crashed into the entrance of a large department store and began leaking an unknown substance, later identified as VX nerve gas.

"It's an excellent exercise," Kipe said. "It gives us the opportunity to do a major exercise with people we don't normally work with, but may need to in the case of an emergency."

The exercise, executed in real time at the building that formerly housed Sears, began at 6:36 p.m. with the initial emergency radio report of a van into a building. Within two minutes, firetrucks were at the scene, and by 6:41 p.m., multiple firefighters from the Quick Response Team were down on the ground as a result of unknown fumes.

The van sent plumes of smoke into the air, and the sound of chirping monitors on the firefighters, which are activated if they do not detect movement during a 30-second interval, grew louder with each downed firefighter.

Controllers acted as umpires, deciding if someone did something wrong during his or her response and told responders when to "play dead."

At 7:47 p.m., firefighters again approached the area where two firefighters succumbed to fumes, and dragged them away. Meanwhile, members of the Washington County Special Operations Team were donning decontamination suits, and at about 8:05 p.m., a portable decontamination tent was erected.

About 20 minutes later, two people acting as civilians in the store were hosed off and cleaned inside the tent.

Just after 8:30 p.m., emergency responders determined that VX gas was involved and called for assistance from the FBI and EPA, which signified the end of Monday's portion of the exercise, according to Larry Johnson, another EPA community involvement coordinator.

"Once you've determined it's nerve gas, it's something local departments aren't trained to handle."

Johnson said the FBI would assist in the investigation with local police and the EPA would supervise the cleanup.

In another portion of the building, a drill simulating a subsequent raid on the apartment of a suspect was conducted, starting at 7:40 p.m. Two teams of four from the Washington County Special Response Team, donned chemical suits with oxygen tanks and entered the building in varying shifts. Their assignment was to clear residents out of nearby apartments, and find the suspect and the laboratory inside the building.

Again, conditions were made realistic as officers had to deal with decreased mobility and visibility from the bulky yellow suits, problems with their 30-minute air supplies and the task of trying to remain as quiet as possible.

"They're about as quiet as a herd of elephants," said Hagerstown Police Department Operations Captain Charlie Summers, acting as a controller.

By 8:05 p.m., team members had evacuated all residents, taken custody of the suspect and put the building on lockdown, awaiting EPA officials who were to test the lab for connections to the van crash.

Summers said the team performed well in tasks including taking the suspect with little incident and not damaging possible evidence. Summers said the scenario would not have played out until police thoroughly investigated the identity of the driver of the van, the owner and several other factors.

Washington County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Mark Knight, a special response team member, said it was helpful for the team to operate in the seemingly real conditions.

"We've never operated in an environment like this - the suits were very restrictive and we kept fogging up," Knight said. "We're going to be the ones going in, so it's helpful because the unknown would be terrible."

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