Emergency Crews Put to the Test at Small Maryland Airport

A mock disaster exercise at the Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster, Md., won high marks for efficient and effective responses to multiple perilous incidents. But the drill made apparent communication gaps among the county's police, fire and emergency services agencies.

"People arrived and reacted as their training dictated," said Maj. Thomas H. Long, chief of the Field Services Bureau for the Carroll County Sheriff's Department. "But the one point of weakness was the lack of communication between agencies."

Participants, many of them volunteers, put out a propane-fueled fire, rescued children injured in a bus accident and defused a terrorist situation. The drill, held last Saturday evening at the airport just outside of Westminster, showed that participants were frequently unaware of other emergencies occurring.

"Operationally, I thought things went well, but communications-wise, we left a lot to be desired," said Jeff Alexander, Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Company fire chief and Maryland Emergency Management Agency regional administrator, who served as spokesman during the drill.

"And that's critical information that we need - the cross-communications between different agencies."

Firefighters battled a fiery plane crash, unaware that a few hundred yards down the runway, police were involved in a shoot-out with terrorists transporting toxic gas.

"A lot of information was not passed on," Alexander said. "For instance, the firefighters on the airplane fire didn't know until 80 minutes into the exercise about the terrorists and chemicals."

A sheriff's deputy, seeking an update on the plane fire, told firefighters that gas was leaking from several cylinders. In a real incident, a gas leak could have proved fatal, organizers said.

Instead of communicating on a single emergency radio channel, agencies maintained their separate channels, partially to keep lines open for actual events, such as the house fire that occurred that evening in Taneytown, said Vivian D. Laxton, county public information administrator.

"In a real situation, everybody would be on the same radio lines," Laxton said. "In the drill, police were on different lines."

The firefighters also were not immediately aware of the mock school bus accident on a winding road north of the airport that would eventually send 46 mock victims to Carroll Hospital Center. Several fire companies set up flood lights at the accident scene, while the medical workers marked triage, treatment and transport areas with different colored flags.

An accident of that magnitude could involve ambulances from nearly all of the county's 14 fire companies.

"We could technically wipe out all of Carroll County's resources," Alexander said.

Communication problems will figure heavily into a report on the drill, required by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which provided $50,000 to fund the exercise and stipulated that it include a terrorism element.

"People were not being made aware of all the different scenarios that were happening. It seemed like communications were the big snafu," Alexander said.

Expenses are still being compiled but should be less than half the grant, officials said. The county spent $15,000 of the grant money to transport an airplane and staff from West Virginia University to the airport. The plane, equipped with propane jets that can simulate a live fire, stayed through the weekend to allow for further training.

During the drill, fully equipped firefighters repeatedly put out the fire, only to have it recur.

"You can have a propane fire out one minute, and the next minute it can come back," Alexander said at the scene. "We are reacting exactly as if this was really happening."

Long called communications "the one point of weakness."

"The exercise was not perfect," Long said. "Its purpose was to identify shortcomings. There was a definite lack of communication between law enforcement and firefighters at the scene. Fortunately, we identified that in an exercise instead of a real live event."

Long did not attribute communication gaps to technology but called it a person-to-person problem within the various responding agencies.

"The federal government is promoting integrated command systems," Long said. "We didn't accomplish that. We have now identified where we lack communication, and we will work to make that right."

The county Emergency Operations Center, which is awaiting after-action reports from all the participants, will take several months to compile the information and prepare reviews for federal and state agencies.

The reports will help the operations center staff to recommend any necessary improvements, said Bill Hall, emergency management planner, who helped coordinate the drill.

"We want to review all the information to make sure everything went right and that all the resources we need are there," said Hall.

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