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Drill reveals rescuers need more training

November 14, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Emergency responders gathered Thursday to review their performance at an October Environmental Protection Agency emergency drill and came to two conclusions: It was a great learning experience, and they need more training with new gear.

Hagerstown Deputy Fire Chief Ron Horn and Hagerstown Battalion Chief Kyd Dieterick said the drill was a good learning experience for all the responders involved.

Horn said EPA officials sent him reaction from the Oct. 20 training session, the first over three days, at the Long Meadow Shopping Center.

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Horn said the primary concerns from the EPA were that firefighters approached a crashed van without hooking up their breathing apparatuses, the lengthy time before emergency responders began monitoring the air and the delay in setting up a gross decontamination unit for those affected by leaking chemicals.

Horn said the operation ran smoothly after the first hour and gave the responders much to consider in the event of a real emergency.

"They've done these drills elsewhere, and believe me, others do the same things," Horn said. "I think it was a good job, overall."

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

Within five minutes of the drill, firefighters from the Quick Response Team who rushed to the vehicle were "down on the ground" as a result of the fumes.

"They started dropping like flies," said Hagerstown Fire Battalion Chief Randy Myers, who was one of nearly 100 responders involved in the drill. "We had seven go down very quick."

Myers said that in a real emergency, factors not present in the drill would prevent firefighters from approaching the van so quickly. He said there would have been shoppers laying "all over the lot."

Hagerstown Police Department Operations Captain Charlie Summers said the first-responding police officers involved in the drill likely would have done the same thing if they had not been a few minutes late to the scene.

Summers had a concern that officers had to wear too much protective gear, hampering their operation.

Summers said officers had problems during a simulation of a raid at the apartment building of a person suspected of manufacturing VX gas. He said officers could not quietly maneuver through the halls of the mock apartment, and their 30-minute air supply bottles only lasted about 10 minutes.

Jim Eberhart, Washington County Hospital director of clinical engineering, said the learning experience has the hospital working to expand their capabilities for decontamination.

"We're not yet able to handle decontamination on a large scale," he said.

Eberhart also said with quicker notification in the event of an actual incident, the hospital will have a better chance of getting the best-trained personnel there to supervise the decontamination process.

Dieterick said more department-level training exercises and another EPA drill in the spring are in the works.

"It's important we do this," Dieterick said. "I don't think the people of Shanksville, Pa., ever thought a plane would crash there. We can't let our guards down."

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