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Drill puts emergency crews to the test in Fulton County

August 20, 2004|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. - Smoke clouded the halls of the Fulton County Courthouse and several people outside appeared to be seriously injured or dead Thursday morning, but the imaginary mayhem was all orchestrated by the county's Emergency Management Agency.

"I got held hostage," said Ladawn Hoffman, a clerk in the Prothonotary's Office, who was back at work an hour after, as part of the drill, a man left a "suspicious" package on the counter.

"He kept telling us not to call 911. This is a drill," Hoffman said as she stamped forms at the counter. "He had EMA on his shirt," she said, explaining why his appearance was no cause for panic.

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Although county employees were told a mock disaster drill would occur in August, they did not know the date, time or nature of the incident, according to Emergency Management Agency Director Lisa Sherman.

As scripted, the scenario called for a man to enter the office and leave the package. Odd-smelling smoke began to come from the basement of the building, hostages were taken at District Justice Wendy Mellott's office across the street and several people pretended to be wounded or killed by the ensuing gunfire.

State and local police, the county Sheriff's Department, firefighters and ambulance personnel responded to the scene, as rubber-necking motorists passed on U.S. 30.

"Probably the strangest thing to watch is the people going by," said Jean Snyder, the public information officer for the emergency management agency.

Outside the courthouse, paramedic Buddy Kerns knelt over Erin Harr, who had "blood" spurting from a leg wound. She and other "casualties" were played by nursing students from the county's vocational-technical school.

"We did have head and neck wounds glued on, but we took them off," said student Mary Hann. She and Heather Cordell portrayed fatalities.

Outside the courthouse complex, men wielded red plastic handguns. Every law enforcement officer at the scene had to exchange their real weapons for fake firearms, Snyder said.

"The whole point of this is to look at things we did right and things we could have done better," Snyder said of the drill.

"Lack of communication pretty well sums it up," said Sherman. "You can preplan all you want, but if you don't have the proper communications, everything pretty much falls apart."

The communication problem was technical, Sherman said. With different agencies using different frequencies, it was hard for them to speak to each other.

Snyder said people evacuated from one county building were led past the district justice's office and taken hostage by the suspects. Sherman said she will suggest county department heads develop new evacuation plans.

County employees were evacuated to a nearby church, but Dan Datesman, the emergency services director in Bedford County, said crews had trouble getting the church unlocked. Datesman, who was there to observe and evaluate the drill, said emergency personnel appeared to perform well overall.

Several members of the South Central Mountains Region Counter Terrorism Task Force were there as observers or participants, Sherman said.

It was the first mock disaster at the courthouse, Sherman said.

"I have a sneaking suspicion there will be more to come," she said.

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