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Daily Portage Register

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This is only a test; disaster scenario measures emergency response

By Dustin Weis, Daily Register
When the staged gunfire died away and the smoke cleared in the neighborhood surrounding the Canadian Pacific railyard near Oneida Street on Saturday morning, there was none of the tension and heartbreak that hangs thick in the air over a typical disaster scene.

Instead, first-responders grinned and exchanged backslaps as they packed up breathing equipment, SWAT gear and decontamination equipment generally reserved for grimmer circumstances.
The surreal scene was all part of a massive disaster response drill sponsored by Canadian Pacific Railway that involved 35 federal, state and local agencies and 200 to 300 officials, responders and volunteers.
"We learned an awful lot today about the city and its workings," Portage Mayor Ken Jahn said at a public briefing. "We also realized there's a lot of work we can do to improve for the future."
The scenario presented a number of challenges that officials in Portage are not normally faced with.
Police, firefighters and EMTs responded as if a criminal act had caused a train to derail in the railyard, puncturing a tanker containing 29,000 gallons of the poisonous gas anhydrous ammonia.
The dire scenario would require immediate action, Canadian Pacific organizer Donnie Day said, and would threaten an area of Portage two-and-a-half miles across by six miles long. Nonetheless, he stressed the importance of protecting the lives of responders in a dangerous situation.
"One of the worst things that can happen as responders is to rush in without taking stock of the situation," Day said. "In that case, you die as well."
In addition to trying to save residents from the fictional plume of white anhydrous ammonia gas, responders also had to track down and apprehend the supposed culprit behind the attack. The scenario dictated that the derailment was caused by an unknown suspect who parked a truck on the railroad tracks, and necessitated a tactical response by a Columbia County SWAT force.
City officials seemed happy with the overall results of the drill. All mock resident casualties were tended to, and the suspect was apprehended quickly.
The exercise did, however, highlight several points that stood in need of improvement, Jahn said.
Chief among the concerns is the matter of communications. Assistant Police Chief Kevin O'Neill said "a minor radio glitch" early in the exercise caused some hiccups in the response, but responders quickly found a means to work around it.
More concerning, Jahn said, was that there was no response when officials contacted Portage's local radio station to put out an emergency broadcast warning residents of the imagined threat. When the staged event occurred at 9 a.m. Saturday, railroad officials said there was no one on duty at the station.
"We need to figure out how to get the word out in a serious disaster," Jahn said. "We don't have local radio to rely on."
Also problematic, but somewhat less concerning, sheriff's officials said, was a situation in which three sheriff's deputies and a sheriff's dog followed the suspect's trail directly through a designated "hot zone." Although the fake smoke railroad officials pumped into the air posed no threat to them, an actual anhydrous ammonia plume could have seriously injured or killed them at close range.
Sheriff's Sgt. Richard Hoege said the deputies arrived on the scene before authorities determined the plume was anhydrous ammonia and immediately began to follow the suspect's trail. In a real situation, Hoege said, the anhydrous ammonia's distinct odor would have clued them off to the danger, and they would not have put themselves at risk.
"There was a little miscommunication," Hoege said. "They're trained to start (tracking) at the point of last contact. They did what they were trained to do."
"Trust me," Canadian Pacific road manager Tom Meierhoff said, "from dealing with anhydrous myself, the smell would have knocked them on their heels before they got close."
The training drill also presented Jahn with his first opportunity to activate the Portage Emergency Operations Center above the police department. In the event of a full-scale disaster, the EOC provides a hub for law enforcement, fire protection, EMS, city officials and even the Red Cross and Salvation Army to come together and monitor the situation.
Sitting in the windowless room watching the proceedings unfold before them on a map and listening to dispatchers relay reports from the field, Jahn said the EOC allowed officials to assess the unfolding situation from a distance, but lent a strange feeling of disconnectedness.
"For a while, we were just sitting up there waiting for information to come," Jahn said. "And then, boy, it really came. Just report upon report upon report."
Divine Savior EMS director Laura Ahola was pleased with the way her people performed.
Divine Savior had specifically requested a thorough workout in Saturday's drill, and EMTs and paramedics on the scene were swamped tending to staged injuries and shuttling victims to the hospital.
During the exercise, Divine Savior called for mutual aid from a number of area EMS services. As director, Ahola would have been called on to coordinate the approach.
"It was frustrating," Ahola said. "I wanted to be out there to see what was going on firsthand and help out. We're very fortunate to have that many services to call on, but in a disaster like this, it would not take long to stress them completely."
At the conclusion of the event, Canadian Pacific hazardous materials specialist Phil Marbut congratulated Columbia County's emergency responders on "a job well done."
Although he said the likelihood of the deadly scenario occurring in Portage was low, he said the scenario was realistic nonetheless, and the preparation would help the city be more ready for any disaster in the future.
"We do haul substantial amounts of hazardous materials in large containers," Marbut said. "This is one of my nightmares for something like this to actually occur. But I'll feel a whole lot better knowing that if it does happen, Portage is a whole lot better prepared than it was a month ago."

© 2007 Portage Daily Register

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