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Officials from nine counties gather for exercise testing communications

5/21/2008 12:00 AM

Emergency responders from the nine-county Middle Rio Grande Development Council area gathered Thursday at the Southwest Texas Junior College Matthews Student Center for a tabletop exercise designed to test emergency communications among different agencies during a terrorist event.

About 60 individuals attended the exercise, a precursor to a functional exercise to be held June 24-25. Uvalde agencies represented included Uvalde Emergency Operations Center, Uvalde Police Department, Uvalde Memorial Hospital, Uvalde County Health department, Uvalde Healthcare, Uvalde County Sheriff's Department and the Uvalde County Attorney's office.

Also present were representatives of the National Weather Service, Texas Department of Public Safety, Real County EOC, Val Verde County EMS, Laughlin Air Force Base emergency management and fire department, Del Rio EOC and Reagan Wells Fire and Rescue.

The exercise, sponsored by the Governor's Division of Emergency Management, used a train derailment as a scenario to test communications among the various agencies.

Forrest Anderson, MRGDC 9-1-1 director, said the exercise scenario started with tank cars containing hazardous materials that were derailed through some kind of terrorist action.

Participants were to figure out how to respond to a cloud of an unknown hazardous substance and fire in the rail cars, “specifically how you manage the communication aspect of that response,” he said.

During the review of the exercise Thursday afternoon, Anderson said members of the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center, NERRTC, and Texas Engineering Extension Service, TEEX, Uvalde did very well in the exercise.

Due to the recent upgrade in communications equipment across the region, Anderson explained that the Council of Governments is now rated at a Level 6 in the hierarchy of communicability. “The state requires a level 4,” he said.

For the June exercise, Anderson said Uvalde EOC will deploy all three of its communications trailers, with an incident command trailer set up near the EOC on Sul Ross Drive.

“Del Rio will have its own separate incident,” said Anderson.

He said Laughlin Air Force Base would be dealing with a scenario involving a blister agent released during some kind of ceremony at the base with some 50 to 60 people affected.

“When something happens on base, they generally shut the doors and nobody goes in or out,” Anderson said. In this instance, however, Laughlin will have to cooperate and communicate with civilian emergency operations authorities.

One of the EOC command trailers will be set up in the Del Rio area as an incident command center for the exercise.

During an EOC meeting Thursday night at the EOC center on Sul Ross Drive, EOC coordinator Ricardo Benavides pointed out that all the responders must have the same local training. “If we have some kind of activity going on, we must use NIMS,” he said.

National Incident Management System training is now required by federal law for all elected officials and first responders. Incident Command System training is also required.

“Every responder has to have ICS training,” said Anderson. “Our funding is tied to NIMS based on your level of responsibility and level of response.”

Anderson said the federal government “is going to close the door sometime” on agencies that don't have all their first-response personnel trained. “They're going to get hard-nosed about it,” he said.

Benavidez said there are individuals in Uvalde who are certified to teach the required courses.

“Certain command levels have to take certain levels of courses,” Anderson said. “It's something we have to do. We don't have a choice. It's something we have to do to stay compliant and maintain our funding.”

“It comes down to a report that I have to turn in,” said Benavidez. “The report outlines everything that has to be done. The only thing holding us is that we have to be compliant with ICS training. We have to have every responder, including hospital, fire, first responders, public works, have it.” He said bringing the training to Uvalde is the cheapest, easiest way to accomplish the requirement.

Don Patterson of Texas Forest Service said there is also a requirement that all elected officials take the NIMS training.

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