HCC prepares for `ripples' of terrorism

Emergency responses are tested in scenario of a nuclear weapons blast

Howard County

April 30, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Howard Community College took a hard look yesterday at what it would do if there were a terrorist attack nearby.

The college's emergency response team, operations staff and volunteer building monitors gathered in a meeting room at the Columbia campus and walked through a fictional scenario involving a nuclear bomb exploding at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The college is the second of several county organizations working through simulated disasters.

The "table top" exercises are organized by the county's Community Emergency Response Network (CERN), a group of law enforcement agencies, nonprofit groups and other partners that were formed to help the county prepare for terrorist attacks.

Howard County may not be a prime target for terrorism, but nearby Washington, Baltimore and the National Security Agency could be and "ripples would come out to Howard County," said Richard M. Krieg, CERN chairman.

Krieg is also president of Horizon Foundation, which supports CERN in its efforts to promote health and wellness in the county.

"This type of thing is absolutely essential in not having the day of an event be the day you look at a situation," Krieg said.

Many large cities and local governments have given their emergency plans a trial run through simulations, but Howard is on the leading edge of bringing such practices to a variety of local organizations, said Robert Kimbrough, project manager for Innovative Emergency Management Inc. of Baton Rouge, which conducts CERN's training.

CERN members from other Howard institutions sit in on the exercises, discuss the issues separately and offer ideas at the end on how they can help.

"The [training exercises] we are doing are excellent," Krieg said, "they really talk about how different institutions would work together."

CERN started with a training session for the county school system in February. Now, it is also working on plans to provide a system of public shelters for emergencies and is leading local efforts for the national Citizen Corps disaster volunteer program.

The program yesterday started with a warm September afternoon when a white box truck crashed through a security gate at the airport. Shortly, local television stations went off the air, cellular and most other phone service was knocked out and CNN reported an explosion near Baltimore.

The college team decided to communicate with people on campus through the public address system, internal phone systems and e-mail and move everyone to predetermined environmental shelter areas.

As the scenario progressed, participants found that the situation involved a nuclear bomb. Things became more complicated as organizers told them the county requested that the school be a shelter for people evacuating the blast area and the hospital sent over some of its noncritical patients.

In addition, monitors threw in last-minute problems, such as a youth soccer team playing on the college fields, individuals in wheelchairs needing to get to safe rooms and media outlets seeking information.

It would be impossible to include every possible element of such a disaster, but the school appreciated the opportunity to try one option.

The exercise was important "so we will feel more confident in how we take care of the people we are responsible for," said HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan.

Halfway through the session, she was feeling pretty good about her school's plans.

She said that with a student body of adults, "you can't do everything for everybody. You have to let people make their own decisions, ultimately."

But regular priorities are clearly superseded by the need to help in such an emergency, she said. That is when staff can offer information and options.

In the end, the staff left with a list of areas to consider further. Some were specific, such as getting a Geiger counter to test for radiation and making sure designated safe areas had enough supplies.

Others were more involved, including addressing liability issues and establishing procedures to isolate and help people arriving from radiation-contaminated areas.

"What's cool about this is identifying things you haven't thought of yet," said Jane Sharp, an HCC marketing assistant.

Things such as good communication and providing mental health counseling are as important as supplies like flashlights, she said.

Planning to be self-sufficient for the first 24 to 72 hours of a disaster is key, said Kevin M. Burr, director of emergency services for the American Red Cross of Central Maryland.

Fire departments, police officers and Red Cross workers will be too busy with immediate needs to help citizens in non-critical areas, he said. Organizations and individuals will need to help themselves and each other.

"The more you can plan ahead, the easier that is," Burr said.

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