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Real people use mock city for disaster training event

October 01, 2005|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

On Friday, there was no joy in Abbottville, a tabletop pretend city used for disaster training.

In the morning, a rash of illness was traced to bad shrimp salad. Then, a bomb blew up at the middle school.

The afternoon plan was for a train to derail, then a gasoline tanker truck to topple over.

About 40 people from police and fire departments, emergency services, schools, the Washington County Health Department and other agencies practiced how they would work together if each disaster were real.

The exercises, in the Washington County Board of Education's auditorium, were led by John J. Bierling, a retired fire chief who now is an emergency services consultant in York, Pa.

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The middle-school "explosion" initially was just a threat. The school system called a 911 dispatcher across the room, who alerted police, fire and rescue workers several feet away.

As help mobilized, Bierling introduced more urgency.

"Boom," he said. Cotton colored red for fire and black for smoke appeared atop the school.

The dispatcher updated his call. Police summoned fire police to direct traffic.

The chorus of radio traffic grew as people joined the exercise. Some put emergency vehicles on Abbottville's roads and moved them as time passed.

Pretending to check in with a dispatcher from the scene, Hagerstown Police Capt. Charles Summers, the department's acting chief, joked, "It appears we have some cotton balls on fire."

Bierling said participants probably knew the proper tactics. Rather, the two-day training session - which continues today - was a lesson in incident command, using a national model.

Incident command is a system of deciding who's in charge and who will do what during an emergency.

The tabletop emergency training was sponsored by Project Aware, a program of the nonprofit Western Maryland Area Health Education Center in Cumberland, Md.

Project Aware teaches volunteers, particularly those at least 55 years old, how to handle emergencies, Carl French said.

"The simulations help because they make you think," said Stoyan Russell, who, like French, works in the emergency management division of the Washington County Department of Emergency Services.

Julianna Albowicz had to think differently when she was drafted to be mayor.

The bomb script said the person who runs the emergency operations center was hit by a bus and couldn't get there. As mayor, Albowicz, who works for U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., had to step in and reach the city engineer, the gas company and others.

"The important thing is to have someone in charge," she said.

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