Drill tests emergency workers Rescuers evaluated after mock disaster

November 08, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

A tractor-trailer jackknifed near New Windsor yesterday morning, spilling hydrochloric acid and prompting authorities to cordon off the site and detour traffic around the area.

A passing motorist reported the crash at Medford and Avondale roads at 8:47 a.m. Within minutes, the New Windsor Volunteer Fire Company became the first of three companies to respond.

To any observer, it looked like a real emergency -- not a full-scale drill planned by the Local Emergency Planning Committee. The mock disaster began with the first call to the Emergency Operations Center.

When firefighters detected the spill and noticed the truck's placard, which identified its hazardous materials cargo, they immediately requested help from Fort Detrick's Hazardous Materials, or HAZMAT, team in Frederick County.

The Local Emergency Planning Committee sprang into action at the site midway between Westminster and New Windsor.

"HAZMAT chose the site and the time," said Howard "Buddy" Redman, chief of the county's Bureau of Emergency Services. "We knew nothing in advance."

Dispatchers told fire companies of the drill. After it began, organizers also asked area radio stations to inform listeners of the mock disaster.

HAZMAT team members followed emergency procedures and used standard precautions and equipment.

They checked prevailing winds and ordered workers to evacuate a nearby quarry. By 10:15 a.m., two team members, dressed in air-tight suits to protect them from the unidentified chemicals, approached the truck with a stretcher.

One man helped the victim, while another checked for spills and retrieved the bill of lading from the truck's cab.

Five minutes later, the victim had been pulled from the wreckage. Team members stripped him and scrubbed him at a temporary shower, several hundred yards from the accident.

"He had to be completely decontaminated before he could be placed in the ambulance and transported to the hospital," said Micki Smith, Carroll County public information officer.

She briefed observers as the two rescuers decontaminated themselves, before meeting with other team members.

"The hardest thing is to get responders to wait for the HAZMAT team," said Ms. Smith. "It is difficult to see someone who needs help. In this situation, you can't help, and you could make it worse."

Yesterday's drill resembled the response to an actual hazardous materials incident at Lehigh Portland Cement Co. Thursday in Union Bridge, where six employees were overcome by fumes, Ms. Smith said.

For the drill, the Emergency Operations Center had also asked for help from the Maryland Department of the Environment, which provided technical reference books, equipment and manpower.

"We would go in first and evaluate, if no HAZMAT team was available," said Hilary Miller, the department's central regional manager. "It takes a lot of people to handle an emergency like this," she said, adding that the drill had been planned for several months.

About 30 minutes after removing the victim from the truck, another protectively clad HAZMAT team, equipped with meters and detection devices, tested the spillage on the ground. Team members also carried a plastic drum, which could cover any leaking 55-gallon container found on the truck.

Using a ladder to reduce contamination, two men re-entered the truck trailer. The lading bill had given them a description and volume of four liquids on the truck, enabling them to notify rescuers that hydrochloric acid had spilled from a drum inside the trailer.

Once the leak was identified, the drill ended -- about three hours from the initial call.

In a real incident, crews from the Department of the Environment would remain on the scene for several more hours, said John K. Chlada, emergency management coordinator. The owner of the cargo would have been called for emergency cleanup, and rescuers would have loaded the trailer contents onto another vehicle.

Seven evaluators, who had been involved in every step of the drill, later reviewed the operation with the responders at the New Windsor Fire Hall.

"The evaluators critique the incident," said Mr. Chlada. "They know what went well and what needs improvement."

The Local Emergency Plan requires an annual hazardous materials test to assess training and equipment needs.

Evaluators also will report their assessments to the Carroll County Commissioners.

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