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Officials: Valley is prepared to respond to mass disasters



Published: Sun, September 30, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Plans for emergency management were made well before the attacks Sept. 11.

By STEPHEN SIFF

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

WARREN -- America was shocked by the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, but local emergency planning officials say they would not be taken by surprise.

"I don't think anyone really said, 'How do you plan for a jet into the World Trade Center,'" said Jim Thompson, director of the Mercer County Department of Public Safety. "But weapons of mass destruction planning, and that sort of thing, has been going on for some time."

The agencies responsible for coordinating disaster response in the Mahoning Valley have been talking about terrorism for years, officials say. Plans for responding to a disaster caused by a terrorist bomb or chemical release were on the books long before Sept. 11 and are continually updated, they say.

Heightened awareness: What may change now is the public interest in these plans, and the concern that public officials and law enforcement agencies bring to the table when plans are being hatched.

"I don't think anyone really thought that anything would ever happen here," said Linda Beil, director of the Trumbull County Emergency Management Agency, which in the spring presented a talk on weapons of mass destruction at a gathering of township trustees.

"This has really opened people's eyes," she said.

Other planning officials agree.

"In America, these issues have not been on the forefront for quite some time," said Jay Carter, director of Columbiana County's EMA. "We probably need to reflect on current events ... Have we looked at those things we need to look at?"

Defending the home front is deeply in the blood of the county agencies, which originated as Civil Defense units during World War II, said Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County EMA.

During peacetime, the emphasis shifted toward response to natural disasters, such as tornadoes, snowstorms and floods. Chemical spills and hazardous materials release came into the fore in recent decades, and then biological and chemical warfare agents, as the natural extension.

Funding: Money for equipment and training to prepare against these hazards began flowing to local agencies from the Department of Justice this year. This year also, groups of industry and law enforcement leaders have been convened to identify possible targets in our communities, Beil said.

Actions local officials might have to take after a terrorist attack are basically the same as what would be required after other kinds of disasters, officials said.

Incident command -- the methodology of directing dozens of agencies and volunteers at a disaster site -- remains the same, as does the process of conducting evacuations or mass decontamination. Bringing medical help to large numbers of casualties after a terrorist attack would be the same process as helping people injured in something like a bleacher collapse at a local high school, Thompson said.

"Some areas we have been doing for years apply to this whole new scenario," he said.

Security: The directors of emergency management agencies say they have not been deluged with calls since the terrorist attacks. With response plans already in place, the emphasis now is on security, said Sharyn Critchlow, director of the Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency.

Some of these agencies have been fielding requests from individuals wondering if they should invest in gas masks or chemical suits for their families. The advice from professionals is that there is other things they can do first.

"Preparedness is an individual responsibility," Duzzny said.

He recommends people stockpile enough food and water to be able to get by for 72 hours. That, plus a flashlight and radio, and maybe some training in first aid, can help people get through all sorts of disasters, Thompson said.

siff@vindy.com




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