Drill shows further training needed

October 23, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

A nerve gas attack on Washington County such as the one simulated in this week's bioterrorism drill in Hagerstown almost certainly would have killed some first-responders, but training beyond what is in place would minimize the number of casualties, officials said Wednesday.

"There's some things that we need to train on that we were not aware of" before the drill, said Hagerstown Deputy Fire Chief Ron Horn.

The Environmental Protection Agency conducted a make-believe VX nerve gas attack at Long Meadow Shopping Center. The drill began Monday night and wrapped up Wednesday.


The participants - about 150 firefighters, police officers, EPA workers and other emergency responders - played out the response to the lethal chemical release and subsequent investigation into a scripted terrorist cell that was making the gas.

While the drill simulated a chemical spill, a police assault on a terrorist lair, and the collection of dangerous evidence, the only "deaths" resulting from the drill involved firefighters.

Horn said that had the drill been the real thing, eight firefighters who responded to a make-believe crash of a van into a building would have died.

While he and other officials said they believed at least two of the firefighters would have died because of the chemical, others could have stayed alive if they hadn't moved to the initial accident so quickly.

"It gave us an opportunity to prove to these guys that sometimes it may not be an ordinary call," Horn said. He said more training will be needed for firefighters.

Justin Mayhue, a captain with the Hagerstown Fire Department, said the drill showed how limited the department was when it came to chemical spills.

"Things like nerve agent is a whole new ball game, and it concerns us a lot. ... We can't handle nerve agent," Mayhue said.

Washington County Hospital had its own problems, said Jim Eberhart, the director of clinical engineering for the hospital.

Medics were waiting at a back entrance at the hospital Monday for people pretending to be suffering from fake illnesses. But when the "patients" arrived at the front door, hospital staff directed them to the prepared area through the hospital instead of having them go back outside and around the building.

Had the drill been the real thing, the decision to take the "patients" through the hospital could have resulted in the contamination of health care workers, Eberhart said.

"We can't help them (patients) if we're sick," Eberhart said.

Officials recapping the events Wednesday touched on problems of communicating in a hectic environment.

There was an "inability to (communicate) and the lack of understanding of what two groups are supposed to be doing," said Bob Guarni, an EPA official who was in charge of logistics during the drill.

Stephen Jarvela, an EPA official out of the Philadelphia office, said one problem that became evident was the difficulty of trying to gather accurate information in a hectic situation.

There is a reporting system in place to keep track of costs, people and resources, but with hundreds of people gathered at a site, that system can break down if people don't begin filtering information up the chain fast enough, Jarvela said.

Officials also found that some air tanks in use by the local fire departments had expired. And no one had checked to see if the air nearby - where the participants were staging - was safe to breathe.

Bob Kelly, the EPA official who coordinated the event, said he would write a final report in a month or two about the specific pros and cons of the drill.

Kelly said Wednesday he was pleased overall with the drill.

"Everything was talked out, discussed, before it was done, which is how it should be," Kelly said.

The Herald-Mail Articles