Eastern Panhandle disaster exercise tests response to nuclear 'dirty bomb'

June 18, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Some "patients" entered the decontamination shower tent staged near City Hospital in Martinsburg Tuesday afternoon under their own strength. Others were hauled in on stretchers -- motionless, sick from radiological exposure.

Detonation of a "dirty bomb" in the Washington, D.C., area brought them to Berkeley County.

At least that was the script that emergency response and homeland security officials were given to test preparedness skills this week as part of an international disaster exercise.

Altogether, 35 patients were processed at a staging area, according to Stephen S. Allen, director of the Berkeley County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The staged calamity continues today in Berkeley and Jefferson counties to test communications and response plans among counties and a federal communication network.


The two-day exercise includes participation of 32 counties, Canada and the Pentagon, said Pamela Holstein-Wallace, West Virginia Homeland Security Regional III Planner.

"What you're seeing is a small snippet of what's happening," Holstein-Wallace said as crews set up three tents to process patients.

While visiting the staging site, the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety's deputy cabinet secretary said the exercise was specifically focused on how the state responds to a disaster that prompts evacuation of the national capital region.

"Naturally, they're going to come west and we want to be ready," said Christy F. Morris.

Before patients arrived at the decontamination tent, vehicles carrying them were initially tested for radioactivity and then sprayed with water to clean off possible radioactive material.

The patients, already scripted on their individual conditions, were then examined and brought to the tent, where crews donning masks, Tyvek suits and green rubber boots examined them more closely.

Three boys, members of Boy Scout Troop 3 in Winchester, Va., all pretended to be suffering from radiation poisoning. Their volunteer acting job to pretend they were ill and vomiting was to help them earn emergency preparedness badges, they said.

One man told EMS responders he felt nauseous but didn't believe he was that close to the blast before being escorted to another tent with a card, detailing his condition by color code and vital signs. The patients were then supposed to be taken to City Hospital or Shenandoah Valley Medical System.

Allen said the support from the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard, based at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport, was substantial.

"Without them, we wouldn't have been able to tax our resources as much," Allen said. "They did a bang-up job of putting our people to the test."

Allen said a skeleton crew of responders essentially did double duty to pull off the first day of the exercise and said he was proud of their performance.

Overall, Allen said a lack of training on equipment still new to many of those involved was apparent, but not unexpected.

Allen said he would like to eventually have more EMS personnel trained on decontamination techniques and be able to rotate more people into the exercises.

Among the approximately 60 people involved in the exercise are officials with the Berkeley County Ambulance Authority, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, West Virginia Air National Guard, State Fire Marshal's Office, American Red Cross, Shenandoah Valley Medical System, City Hospital, Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, Baker Heights Volunteer Fire Department, Berkeley County Health Department, Berkeley County Central Dispatch, West Virginia Civil Air Patrol and Berkeley County Sheriff's Department.

The second day of the exercise will focus on the coordination and control of response to the evacuees, as well as communication testing with the state.

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