Since 9/11, emergency responders have been practicing for new kinds of emergencies. In addition to fires and hazardous materials spills, emergency personnel have been training to deal with terrorist attacks. Recently, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham was allowed behind the scenes in a terrorism attack training exercise:
Since 9/11, emergency responders have been practicing for new kinds of emergencies. In
addition to fires and hazardous materials spills, emergency personnel have been training
to deal with terrorist attacks. Recently, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham was allowed behind the scenes in a terrorism attack training exercise:
These two men are the victims of some kind of biological toxin. They were investigating
an abandoned rental truck and now they’re writhing on the ground after a package
spewed some kind of liquid.
(chatter between mock victims) “You alright, man?” “What was that?” “I don’t know
what that was. It hurts.”
These guys are acting. They’re part of a huge training exercise put on by the
Environmental Protection Agency. Dozens of firefighters, emergency medical personnel,
EPA investigators, the FBI and people in t-shirts identifying themselves with acronyms
for agencies most of us have never heard of. They’re all working through a couple of
scenarios. So far today, they’ve discovered radioactive material to make dirty bombs and
some kind of lab set up to make a chemical like sarin nerve gas… and then there’s the
rental truck which is loaded with nasty chemicals.
Mark Durno is the U.S. EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator…
“We have some very distinct objectives with this exercise. One is to practice responding
to unusual situations that might involve weapons of mass destruction. In this particular
exercise, we’re practicing chemical agent and radiological agent response.”
There are lots of new things to learn. Coordination between agencies… and new
techniques. In this exercise, Detroit city departments are learning to work with federal
agencies. Melvin Green is with the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services. He
says this exercise is good. He’d rather see his medical technicians make mistakes here
than during a real emergency… where his worst fears might be realized.
“I would have to say that, you know, them become casualties, that’s probably my biggest
fear. This is why we want to educate them on—and this is why the exercise is so
important. We want to educate them on the possibilities. Keeping our people safe
That’s because if the emergency medical personnel are hurt… fewer people will be
The idea of a terrorist attack with radiological or biological agents is the kind of
nightmarish scenario that no one really wants to think about… but it’s something
emergency responders HAVE to think about.
During this day-long exercise… these trainees are upbeat, they’re confident in their
response. They feel they’ve come a long way in the nearly three years since 9/11.
But other emergency service experts are not quite as upbeat. Just 40 miles from this
training exercise… at the University of Michigan Hospital’s Department of Emergency
Medicine, Administrator Peter Forster says there are weaknesses in preparedness for
“We’ve made a lot of progress from where we were, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”
Forster says when victims start showing up at the hospital emergency rooms…. there will
“Most emergency preparedness activities have been geared toward local events with
relatively small numbers of victims. When we start talking about hundreds of people or
thousands of people injured or hurt, or exposed to some toxic or contagious substance,
then I think the health system would have a significantly difficult time expanding to meet
that requirement, regardless of how much, uh, how well we’re trained or how prepared
we are. We don’t really have the capacity on the health care side to manage a significant
influx of patients.”
Forster says plans to set up emergency medical facilities in auditoriums, school gyms,
and maybe even hotel rooms need to be completed… arrangements made… and supplies
(sound up of training exercise, generators, etc.)
Meanwhile, back in Detroit… investigators are putting on bulky chemical protection
suits—the ones that look like big space suits…blue, yellow, olive, with teal-colored
gloves and orange boots… you’d think of circus colors if the subject matter weren’t so
serious. After examining the mock lab, spending about an hour in the sweltering suits,
they come out for decontamination before their air tanks run out. The local agencies help
with decontamination… spraying and scrubbing the suits down.
(sound: beeping, scrubbing)
The training site has all the sights and sounds of a real emergency. Lots of emergency
vehicles… the noise of generators and the smell of diesel. But it’s fairly relaxed. There’s
none of the tension, none of the urgency of a real emergency.
The U.S. EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator, Mark Durno, says there are some things you
can’t bring to a drill…
“You can never simulate the adrenaline and the potential panic that’s associated with a
real event, especially when you hear the words ‘chemical’ and ‘radiological’ agent.
However, we can practice those little tools that we’re going to need to be absolutely
proficient at to ensure that when the panic hits, we’re ready to roll without any
The days’ training has turned up a few glitches. Communication between agencies is
still a problem. Emergency radio frequencies need to be sorted out and coordinated. And
there are still some major gaps in preparedness that are not part of this training… such as
the emergency room capacity problem. But one of the bigger issues is money. Federal
money has been promised to local governments… but it’s been very slow in coming.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.