Saturday, January 08, 2005
Southwest Virginia crews prepared for event of similar scope as S.C. train wreck
"You never know until it happens, but our folks have a lot of training and have been able to get additional equipment."
Hundreds of people, thousands of hours and millions of dollars in Virginia have been devoted to preparing for the type of disaster that occurred in South Carolina on Thursday, and some of those resources may not have been possible had the 9/11 terrorist attacks not occurred, officials say.
A train crash and subsequent chlorine gas leak in Graniteville, S.C., on Thursday killed eight people and injured hundreds more, putting emergency responders to the test. In Southwest Virginia, an intricate, coordinated plan is already in place and has been practiced.
"You never know until it happens, but our folks have a lot of training and have been able to get additional equipment," said Virginia Department of Emergency Management spokesman Bob Spieldenner. "I think we've increased the overall knowledge base so that our level of preparedness is at a higher level than it would have been five years ago."
After 9/11, the newly-created Department of Homeland Defense funneled millions of dollars in grant money to Virginia to purchase equipment and conduct disaster response training, Spieldenner said. Mock disasters have been held for many possible scenarios, including a chlorine spill just like the one in Graniteville.
If a chemical spill occurred in Roanoke or the New River Valley today, the first responders would likely be the local fire department, and the chief would become the incident commander. If the spill is too big for the local fire department to handle alone, the chief would call the Department of Emergency Management, which would send a regional hazmat officer.
"The regional hazmat officers would arrive on scene, assess the situation and if needed, bring in hazardous materials teams," Spieldenner said.
Virginia has 13 regional hazmat teams. In Southwest Virginia, they are headquartered in Roanoke, Giles County, Wise and Bristol. If a team is activated, its members become state employees for the duration of the disaster clean-up, Spieldenner said.
Roanoke County Division Chief Joey Stump said he was taught an acronym for hazmat response: DECIDE. It prompts responders to detect the chemical agent, estimate harm to surroundings, choose the best response, indicate what agencies will be involved, do it and evaluate the response as it unfolds.
"It is supposed to be a constantly evolving process," Stump said.
Roanoke Fire-EMS Division Chief David Hoback said his department has new software that can be used to assess the "plume dispersion" of the chemical, or the distance and direction it will travel from the point of origin.
"We load the information and it gives us an idea of where the cloud would go," he said.
If officials decide there is a risk to residents within a certain radius of the disaster, police officers, sheriff's deputies and other personnel might walk door-to-door and evacuate the nearest citizens, Hoback said. Funds have allowed many police departments in Virginia to purchase protective gear such as gas masks for their employees.
The media would also likely be used to get the word out to the community that the spill has occurred, Hoback said.
At a safe distance from the disaster, a command post and triage area would be set up and patients would be brought there. To "triage" means to divide patients into groups and color code according to the severity of their injuries.
Communications between the command post and local hospitals would be key, officials said. With a large number of patients to treat, one hospital may not be able to handle the flow alone.
Carol Gilbert, Carilion's medical director for emergency management services, said a group of 16 hospitals that make up the Near Southwest Protection Alliance have been working over the past two years to consolidate their disaster plans.
If a disaster occurred near one hospital, the others would either take in overflow patients or ship supplies to partner hospitals, Gilbert said. Not every hospital in NSPA is a Carilion-owned hospital.
"The biggest thing is the increase in coordination between hospitals," Gilbert said. "That's the exciting thing."
Out at the disaster command post, the incident commander would communicate with the hospital command center the number of patients and the severity of injuries. The hospital command center could then tell the responders how to divide the patients and where to take them for treatment.
In the event of a chemical spill, decontamination would be necessary. Portable showers would likely be taken to the scene for that purpose, and Gilbert said Carilion recently purchased a decontamination tent that can be inflated within minutes.
If a large number of walking wounded are in need of medicines, the Virginia Department of Health has the ability to have supplies shipped to the area in a timely manner and has practiced a mass drug distribution.
Since 9/11, officials say, the need for preparedness and regional cooperation has become far more apparent. Jennifer Conley-Sexton, spokeswoman for Roanoke County Fire and Rescue, called disaster response teams the "silent teams" because they train so much and unless something big happens, no one realizes.
Said Stump, "We run rescue calls every day, so people's skills stay proficient, but a call like that where you run one or two in a career, you just have to really take your time and think through them."