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Multi-agency drill tests emergency response

New Hampshire Union Leader

October 10. 2012 11:34PM
State agencies set up during a multi-agency field exercise outside of the State House Annex Mailroom in Concord on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
CONCORD - A multi-agency emergency response drill Wednesday at the State House Annex called upon first responders to react to a staged scenari meant to mimic a terrorist attack.

In the exercise, white powder that fell out of a damaged envelope in the room that handles the mail for all state agencies triggered a multi-agency response.

Protocol was followed once the exercise began, with the basement room immediately locked and the alarm sounded.

It was only a drill, announced in advance so as not to frighten the public, and the powder was harmless.

The 150-plus employees and visitors were allowed to resume normal activity after the alarm, but the exercise continued as though the powder was a poisonous substance sent to the governor by a terrorist organization.

Wednesday's exercise was the first of three such events planned for this week, with the others in uncongested areas in Allenstown and Loudon Thursday and Friday.

The drills are opportunities for various agencies, including the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health Services, the National Guard, state Administrative Services and Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Boston office, which oversees New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, were on hand to observe and evaluate.

The scenario had the state calling on the National Guard for assistance because the Concord Fire Department and area hazmat units were addressing major events elsewhere.

Once the powder was 'discovered' Wednesday morning, the alarm was sounded at 8:57 a.m. But there were no sirens or engines racing to the scene. Instead, unmarked blue vehicles, including a mobile laboratory, arrived more than an hour later.

There was no need for speed in this instance, said Health and Human Services physicist Jerry Kwasnik, who coordinated the drill.

That was because the suspect powder was contained and was not something that would explode, or burst into flame.

Notifications went up and then down the chain of command and the National Guard Civil Support Team was assembled and dispatched.

A mail supervisor, Al Quimby, stood in for the Concord fire chief as incident commander for the exercise.

He said there have been some real-life scary incidents in the mail room. Once, a package addressed to the Department of Environmental Services started to leak. As it turned out, the package contained water samples, so the department was asked to start labeling those packages.

Another incident involved white powder. When a letter from a state prison inmate was sent throught the stamping machine, there was an explosion of white powder. Quimby said the prisoner had put Whiteout over the original writing and then wrote on top of it when it was dry.

The National Guard unit's former science officer, Major Bryan Gray, said the unit is on call 24 hours a day and, when notified of a mission, has a 90-minute time frame to get everything it will need and be out of the door.

He said everyone in the unit has a specific job and everyone is hazmat certified.

Kwasnik said the National Guard unit was overkill for Wednesday's exercise because it is trained and equipped for dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

But the field exercise scenario had other hazmat units unavailable. 'If you have multiple events going on, you have to do what you do.'

Although everyonne knew the powder was harmless, the Guardsmen proceded as if it were the real thing. A decontamination area was set up outside the building and procedures were reviewed by the team who were to enter the building before they were allowed to enter.

The two men who were to retrieve the powder wore special suits, masks and breathing apparatus. Communications were established with the Joint Operational Command at a distant location.

There are no shortcuts, or skipping steps, just because everyone knows the powder is harmless.

Outside the laboratory van is what looks like a bright yellow child's pool. Two buckets containing long handled brushes are on one side, with water tanks at the ready on the other. It's preparations in the event of a contaminant escape the van.

A a powerful generator on site ensures there is power for any need during a mission, Gray said.

The unit has a microwave dish so they can provide phone and Internet service, so information and images can be securely delivered to other locations. That's especially helpful when the mission involves a plume or other situation in which wind can be an issue. Gray said the unit is called on most often for meth labs, or suspected meth labs, because they pose not only a health threat from the chemicals used to cook the meth, but also the potential for explosions and fires.

Kwasnik said that next week the drill will be evaluated and tweaks made, if needed. He said the large-scale drill is a way to test not only individual roles, but also the way agencies interact to handle a complicated issue.

Thursday and Friday, the same teams will address different challenging scenarios in very different settings.

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