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Exercise at mall involves Pa. crews

Exercise at mall involves Pa. crews

April 23, 2007|by JENNIFER FITCH

SCOTLAND, PA. - By the time medical personnel reached the "victims" at a mock terrorism exercise Sunday, most of them had abandoned coughing and unconsciousness to go in search of a bathroom.

Made aware that they were needed, the female victims jogged back to the J.C. Penney wing of the Chambersburg Mall and collapsed to the floor.

There, two by two, they were loaded onto stretchers and taken outside to the showers in a mobile decontamination unit.

The volunteer victims' roles were woven into an exercise that Susan Dutko, of Franklin County Emergency Services, said was designed to "make us all better on something we hopefully never have to do."

Taking clues from chaotic incidents like the Nickel Mines, Pa., Amish school shooting, Dutko joined with mall and county emergency personnel to draft a drill that would test responses and communication.

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"We're trying to look at the real world when we're writing these exercises," said Dutko, who has been involved with eight since joining the county staff about two years ago.

On Sunday, a "chlorine-based chemical bomb" was placed beneath a Hummer parked in the mall for a sales promotion. The device spewed white smoke periodically.

A security guard in a mall bank was notified of the device just after 4 p.m. and went to investigate. He called 911 and was able to describe the scene before dropping to the floor.

Fourteen other victims - instructed to "make it as real as you can for these folks" by county operations and training officer John W. Hopkins - were overcome by the gas that filtered toward a mall exit.

"They found the bomb. Cool," Dutko remarked while walking through the scene.

Even with red signs posted by doors, mall evacuation proved troublesome and took longer than what its manager wanted.

"Look at the Hummer," one small boy said, strolling toward the vehicle and then pointing to the unconscious guard.

Three women argued with an exasperated official who was telling them to leave through the J.C. Penney store.

"Don't you see the dead people?" he snapped.

"I had tons of people coming up to me (in confusion). I had one person who walked up and said, 'So I can't buy anything?'" said Amber Keller, who works at the Piercing Pagoda kiosk.

In her eight years working at the mall, Keller had never witnessed an exercise and said it was good practice for response.

"The mall could've been a little louder in the announcement," she said.

Bryanna Haley, a manager at American Eagle, agreed that the announcement on the public address system had largely failed.

"We had to walk out into the mall (from the store) to hear it," she said.

Mall officials said the public address system had not done its job and would be under review.

Franklin Fire Department firefighters first entering the building noticed a suspicious package and immediately pulled out.

"They realized they've got more on their hands than what they expected. They evacuated for more resources," Hopkins said.

Drill designers had not planned for the package, which was a book bag tossed in the corner by a press photographer.

A Pennsylvania State Police bomb squad, with officers wearing gear that resembled spacesuits, cleared both the chemical bomb and package before medical personnel were permitted to enter the building. SWAT team members later took a few moments for practice, crawling on their stomachs with weapons drawn.

The exercise concluded with the group participating in a "hot wash," in which three positives and three negatives were identified.

It identified positives as the number of participants (more than 75), coordination between 11 agencies and fire departments' support of decontamination efforts. Negatives were too many spectators not involved in operations, not enough practice on the part of the decontamination strike team and that staging everyone together hindered critical thinking.

Although an hour and a half passed before victims were removed from the mall, Dutko said most would have lived if the bomb was in fact chlorine-based like many of those being detonated in the Middle East.

"Some people would go into respiratory failure," she said.

The public often views television shows in which responses are neatly tucked into an hour time slot, she said, and doesn't realize that "real-world stuff takes time."




Timeline



4:02 ? Chemical bomb detonated and bank security guard notified

4:10 ? Call placed to 911

4:18 ? Rescue agencies begin staging at the scene

4:35 ? First responders enter the building but quickly exit upon spotting suspicious package

5:45 ? Victim removal begins

6:05 ? Decontamination completed for victims

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