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Drill trains workers for real emergencies

October 22, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Michael Strazisar's T-shirt was soaked through, and his hair was drenched. The green plastic suit he had just taken off was designed to keep chemicals and noxious gases out, but is also effective at keeping in body heat.

"It always is (hot). It's a level-A suit," designed to keep out the most vicious chemicals, said Strazisar, a scientific contractor with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Strazisar was one of more than a dozen people who donned chemical-resistant suits Tuesday to take part in the second day of the EPA's bioterror drill at Long Meadow Shopping Center.

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Federal agents and local emergency workers continued working through technical challenges that could arise in a real situation involving terrorism - like the heat of a chemical suit, or getting last-second word out to dozens of people.

Strazisar's specific role Tuesday was to take electronic readings inside a van where the make-believe toxin - VX gas in the drill script - had been stored by concocted terrorists.

Strazisar said it's not easy when wearing rubber gloves "to push the little buttons ... when you're in a bulky suit like that."

"It takes practice. That's why we do this," he said.

Drew Wojtanik, another scientific contractor, said the heat could become overwhelming.

"Let me tell you what, if you're in an 80-degree day ... I guess it's gonna be about 110, 120 degrees inside your suit," Wojtanik said.

While EPA specialists were testing chemical suits, police were working with a newly purchased radio system that can patch together five separate radio networks.

"There's a lot of counties that don't have anything like this at all," Hagerstown City Police Capt. Charles Summers said. Summers and another officer tinkered with the wires, and put out a few signals to make sure it worked.

While the system doesn't seem like a technical wonder, Summers said, it's a very powerful communications system.

If, for instance, VX gas were to be released, a safety zone would have to be quickly cordoned off. With a hundred or more people from police, fire, the EPA, and maybe neighboring jurisdictions all crowded around the incident, time is of the essence, Summers said.

"The clock is ticking. ... I don't want to talk to 500 people" individually, Summers said. "This little black box is how we talk to them."

Justin Mayhue, a captain with the Hagerstown Fire Department, said getting to meet people outside his own agency is one of the biggest benefits of the drill.

"It's good experience. ... Seldom do we get to meet the people that we're going to be dealing with" in a situation involving terrorism.

As part of the practice run, a local ambulance crew from the Halfway Volunteer Fire Co. checked workers before they put on the suits and after they took them off, to make sure they weren't overheating.

Ryan Adkins, a Halfway ambulance paramedic, said he thought the training would serve him well.

"The more you practice, the better you get. ... You're in that mind-set, you know your role and what's supposed to be done."

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