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Preparing for a crisis



Published: Wed, September 18, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PETER H. MILLIKEN

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

COITSVILLE -- Ten terrorists, perhaps with some help from disgruntled employees, seize control of a chemical company and take three hostages. Shots are fired and there's an explosion.

Imagine that they unleash a cloud of unknown gas from the company's back door and remove a load of hazardous chemicals from the plant in a rental truck bound for East Palestine.

Local firefighters donning masks and oxygen tanks and the Mahoning County Haz-Mat team arrive, but they can't enter the plant until a gas-masked, heavily armed and armored police crisis response team surrounds and storms the building.

The SWAT team, made up of Youngstown police, deputy sheriffs and FBI agents, clashes with and removes the terrorists, some of whom are killed or injured.

Because the Haz-Mat team lacks the proper equipment to deal with the chemicals that have been released, the Ohio National Guard's Columbus-based 52nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team arrives and sets up a decontamination unit in the parking lot.

Impossible?

What it was about

This didn't happen in real life Tuesday evening. The events were part of a well-planned scenario designed to test the readiness of local police, fire, ambulance and American Red Cross personnel to work together effectively.

"Preparedness. That's what it's all about. This whole thing is about preparedness for us and making sure that we can, if necessary, respond with a very coordinated effort," said Walter Duzzny, Mahoning County emergency management director.

"Unlike any other chemical spill that has been the norm for us in terms of drill and training, the bad guys have to be extracted before a lot of the other safety services can go in. That forces the issue of interaction between various disciplines in the community," Duzzny said of Tuesday's exercise.

The "chemical company," dubbed "Victory Research and Development," and headquartered for the exercise in a gymnasium at Victory Assembly of God on U.S. Route 422, made matters more difficult because the company president was reluctant to make a full disclosure about a hazardous chemical, which he said was a trade secret. But, after the "terrorists" were neutralized, the Haz-Mat team found and detected chlorine in the building.

As the scenario unfolds, the truck travels down state Route 170 to East Palestine, where police stop it and the exercise continues at 6 p.m. today, said Mary R. Smith, Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency weapons of mass destruction coordinator. But she wouldn't disclose what would happen after the traffic stop is made.

Importance of teamwork

"This exercise is designed to work on relationships between the fire, emergency medical services, law enforcement, special response teams and military teams," said J.B. Anderson, training and exercise analyst with the Center for National Response, of Fairfax, Va., and a consultant to the exercise.

The exercise is designed, "so that the teams can be prepared for the 'when.' The 'if' has already occurred. That happened on 9/11. Now, we're worried about the 'when,'" he said.

"Now, we've got players that we've never had work together before see each others' faces, so, if this really happens, we've worked with each of these entities, and we won't be strangers to each other," said Boardman Fire Chief James Dorman.

"It's to examine areas where we have potential for growth or improvement, and certainly to identify those areas where we might have a problem. These drills are how we address those issues," said Lt. Robin Lees, public affairs officer for the Youngstown Police Department, who was suited up as a tactical response team member.




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