The scenario: A dirty bomb falls somewhere in the Washington D.C. area. Thousands of people evacuate to West Virginia. The state Homeland Security Department staged a major exercise yesterday to test whether West Virginia can handle such a scenario.
In Berkeley County, the local Homeland Security and Emergency Services Department set up a decontamination station on a strip of land between the county’s hospital and Interstate 81.
Shortly after 11 a.m. a West Virginia Emergency Response Team semi truck and trailer pulled up. Members from local fire and emergency services departments worked with members of the National Guard to empty the truck and erect tents where evacuees were decontaminated.
State Military Affairs and Public Safety Deputy Director Christy Morris was on hand to observe. Morris says there are several benefits to conducting this exercise:
“We haven’t had a complete statewide emergency in several years so this is a great opportunity to test phone numbers, to test names of people, make sure they’re still in their same jobs, and reacquaint themselves with each other in emergencies,” Morris says.
Local ham radio operators were also on hand to participate. Jay Tabor is Vice President of the Opequon Radio Society. Tabor says members were stationed here as well as at the county office of emergency services, the hospital and other key places:
“And this is exactly how we would distribute ourselves in a time of disaster,” Tabor says. We would go the key critical points and provide a form of communication that might not be available. A lot of people are very quick to pick up a cell phone but it’s very much when you have a disaster can you hear me now.”
About 30 volunteers played the role of evacuees from Washington D.C., including Steve Swim and Karen Lloyd:
“I think it’s a worthwhile thing to plan ahead for disasters and be prepared,” Swim says.
“Yeah, and as much as you practice there’s always going to be that situation where you’re not going to be prepared,” Lloyd says. But having some things ready and knowing partially what you’re doing is going to be better than knowing nothing.”
Dr. Kip Thomas watched as events unfolded. Thomas is director of Boston University School of Medicine’s Biomedical Crisis Management program. Thomas is studying how communities can better respond to emergencies and will use results from Berkeley County’s exercise in his research. Thomas says rural areas face several challenges in preparing for a crisis:
“I think the first challenge is not having enough resources to do these types of exercises often enough to be actually aware and ready for the things that are going to crop up when something like this happens,” Thomas says. I think this is great that they’re doing it. But I think the challenge is who’s actually going to head this way, what is the problem going to be and then trying to determine that in the middle of a crisis. Very difficult.”
Thomas says it’s costly to run emergency exercises like this and researchers like him hope to find ways to practice less expensively.