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Drill helps responders prepare for disaster

September 23, 2007|By DON AINES

WILLIAMSPORT - Steve Shadrach's face was pale and his left arm ached as he sat coughing on the grass berm near the entrance of the R.C. Willson Water Production Plant.

"I think he's having a heart attack," said Beth Carr, herself showing evidence of injuries she sustained from a leak of 317 pounds of chlorine in the plant. Soon, Shadrach was supine and motionless on the grass.

"I've got a palmar laceration. It's bleeding rather badly," Carr remarked of the gaping wound on her left hand and wrist.

Carr, a pharmacy student, and Shadrach, a water plant operator, both felt better than they looked. By the end of Saturday's multi-agency drill at the plant, Shadrach was unsure whether he was priority one - critically ill - or dead.

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They and other "victim participants" helped police, fire, ambulance and hazardous materials personnel test their planning and training for a mass casualty incident. The annual drill was conducted by the Washington County Local Emergency Planning Committee.

"We're certainly crossing all the jurisdictional lines to bring everyone together and assess our readiness for a real emergency," said John Latimer, the director of the Washington County Division of Fire and Emergency Services. The exercise involved units from the Williamsport, Halfway and Clear Spring fire departments, Maryland State Police, Hagerstown City Police, the Washington County Sheriff's Department, the National Park Service, Maryland Natural Resources Police, personnel from Latimer's division and other agencies.

"Chlorine is the only chemical we have on the site that's subject to EPA risk management regulations," Water Operations Manager Nancy Hausrath said of the plant, which serves 88,000 customers with about 11 million gallons of water a day.

The faux injuries were not limited to plant personnel, as other "victims" hiking and biking along the C&O Canal were brought to a triage area for treatment. First responders also had to deal with the unexpected, Latimer said.

An incident commander was taken out of the drill for a time after it was ruled he had been contaminated by touching one of the victims, Latimer said. That meant another firefighter had to step up to fill the void in the command structure.

"Nobody that is here has any prior knowledge of what's going to happen," other than it is a hazardous materials drill at the plant, Latimer said.

With clipboards and green vests, evaluators watched the performance.

"If this was real we wouldn't be standing here," said county Emergency Management Coordinator Verna Brown, who wore a controller's vest. "Anyone wearing a vest is kind of like a ghost."

"A lot of mistakes were made. It's a learning experience," said Daniel Pauley, a paramedic. However, this kind of training, he said, "is the practice scenario of a real-life situation."

At the end of the drill, the participants were to go to the Williamsport fire station for a review and critique of the exercise, said Norman Bassett, public information officer for the Washington County Board of Commissioners.

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