Saturday, June 16, 2012
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EMA training day dubbed a success

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[June 16, 2012]  Thursday there were dozens of people in the city of Lincoln living in a parallel world. It was a world where the day started out like any other day, but in a matter of a few hours everything went terribly wrong.

It was a firefighter, paramedic, health care official and law enforcement agency's worst nightmare come true. Fortunately, though, it was all make-believe.

And while make-believe might be the right term for what was going on in Lincoln, it could not have been further from the traditionally accompanying phrase "fun and games."

The day began at 7:10 a.m. with a real-world briefing for news media at Lincoln Christian Church. Then for the next few hours, everyone participated in role-play for disaster drills, including the media.

The Logan County Fairgrounds was divided into sections that represented different areas in Lincoln, and throughout the day a variety of scenarios were acted out, not just there, but in other parts of the town as well.

The first event took place at the fairgrounds and was an anhydrous ammonia accident scenario. In that event, a pickup truck pulling a typical anhydrous ammonia tank had a wreck near Chester-East Lincoln School.

When police and fire arrived on the scene, gas was leaking from the tank, children at the school had been exposed to it, and one person was lying on the ground deceased.

While this was going on, another scenario was playing out uptown. Someone had called in a bomb threat at City Hall, and the bomb had been located by police in a parked car in the City Hall parking area.

While this was going on, a white substance had been discovered and was deemed to be suspicious and sent off to Springfield to be tested.

Later in the day a farm chemical spray truck would be stolen from a farm services business and driven around Scully Park spraying. What was first thought to possibly be insecticide was later revealed to be a poisonous chemical.

The Scully Park scenario was also played out at the fairgrounds. There firefighters donned protective clothing and headgear and ventured into the park in search of victims.

After the spray truck had made its rounds, several in the park fell ill. The fire department offered assistance to those who were down, and in some cases carried victims to safety on their own shoulders.

During the course of all these events, mock news conferences were held to try to inform about what was going on, without panicking the public. The media present played the role of trying to get information out of public officials.

According to Dan Fulscher of the Logan County Emergency Management Agency, all of this was done for one purpose: to help local first responders and local officials to be prepared for the unthinkable.

In the event of a real disaster, whether it be a calamity of terrorist activity or a catastrophic weather event, there needs to be a plan that will help expedite emergency services and at the same time assure the public that in the midst of whatever is happening, there is a certain amount of control over the situation.

Part of the mock exercise included city and county officials, law enforcement, and the Logan County Department of Public Health speaking to the public through media services.

After the mock anhydrous ammonia accident, public officials responded to media pressuring them for answers by holding a news conference. At the mock news conference, Mayor Keith Snyder advised the public of the accident that was under investigation as well as the bomb threat.

County board member Rick Aylesworth also spoke, advising that a state of emergency had been declared.

It was Nina Huddlestun from the health department who informed the public there was anthrax in the area. Mike Geriets, deputy police chief, also spoke to media about the events of the day thus far and the investigations going on.

At a conference later in the day, county board member David Hepler would participate along with Mark Hilliard, administrator of the health department.

At both conferences Fulscher was there and spoke as well, though he said in a real-world event, he would be much less visible to the public.

In general, the exercises that went on throughout the day were well-organized, and responders appeared to know exactly what to do in each case.

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As they went through the drills, they were observed by experts who are trained to know what went right and what went wrong. Those evaluators will present Fulscher with reports on what they witnessed. This will allow the teams to make adjustments accordingly in their emergency plans.

In addition to local organizations, state-level special task forces were involved with this event. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency was on hand and very visible as they participated and observed the events.

The Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System team, otherwise known as ILEAS, was there. This is a special operations team who trains in weapons of mass destruction. These people are highly skilled individuals who are trained to respond with deadly force as needed.

Because they are a specialist team, media were not allowed to photograph or video their faces; their names were not shared with anyone; and for the most part, their portions of the exercises were not made available to the media.

In addition to special forces, the exercises also used special equipment from MABAS. The Lincoln and Logan County fire departments belong to the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Division 51. The program is designed to assist fire departments all over the state with special equipment that might be needed during a specific emergency. For the fire departments this is a huge asset, as much of this type of equipment is rarely used, very expensive and therefore not often a priority on a tight city budget.

For the exercises on Thursday, the first responders had a MABAS tent complete with air conditioning. The tent could have been used on-site as a command post, an emergency medic service location or any number of things.

In addition they were using a large bank of emergency lights that would have been of great benefit as nighttime fell on the mock disaster.

There was a final news conference that was part mock and part real-world. During that time Fulscher was asked if the day had been a success. He said that he considered that it had.

He reminded the media this day was eight years in the making. During that period of time, a lot of planning was involved as well as training for the individual scenarios, and also there were tabletop drill days and much more.

Putting the mock drills together also involved a large number of people behind the scenes. From the Lincoln mayor to the health department, police, fire and county officials, everyone had taken their roles seriously, and Fulscher said they had dedicated themselves to the event, understanding the need to be prepared.

Fulscher was also asked how many real-world calls had come in during the drills.

For the staff members who work in the 911 dispatch center, this was a training day also. They were sending out mock alarm calls throughout the day. Their role was to be clear and concise as to what the emergency was and to get first responders headed in the right direction as quickly as possible.

When real calls came into the office during the drills, the staff needed to be able to relay to first responders that it was a real call. To do this, they prefaced each radio call with the words, "This is a real-world page." Fulscher said the department handled their part of the exercises very well, and during the course of the day there had been a handful of EMS calls, but no serious fire or accident events.

At the end of the day, this type of training is something that will hopefully never be used in Logan County, but it should be a comfort to know that if something goes terribly wrong in Lincoln or Logan County, our first responders are well prepared to do all they can to take care of us.


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