A scenario of disastrous proportions struck Bryan-College Station June 10-12.
A smallpox outbreak closed the Hilton Hotel. Two tanker trucks and a train explosion blocked major thoroughfares and released a cloud of chemicals into the air, which led officials to close Texas A&M University and the airport. The events were purportedly the work of an international terrorist cell.
Actually, those wreaking havoc on the community were calmly sitting in a conference room at the John B. Connally Building. No, they weren’t terrorists–they work for TEEX. And the team from the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center (NERRTC) runs similar scenarios in cities all across the state, the nation and overseas.
The mock disaster was designed to prepare Bryan, College Station, Brazos County and Texas A&M University emergency managers to respond to the real-life challenge of a terrorist incident involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Local officials have held other emergency drills and have worked together on actual disasters such as the Bonfire collapse in 1999, but this was the first drill involving WMD.
Throughout the two-and-a-half-day scenario, the NERRTC team, headed by Doug Rape’, calmly followed their “script,” periodically creating a new terrorist incident or adding information about the chemical cloud or status of victims — just when the responders thought they had everything under control.
“We pass the information to the right location,” said program coordinator Rape’. “The community is interested in how the information is distributed and acted on.” At each command post, “observers” monitor how quickly and effectively the information is shared with others at that location and with other command posts.
The drill is part of the Governor’s exercise program, which is administered by the Texas Department of Public Safety — Division of Emergency Management in order to prepare Texas cities and jurisdictions for a potential terrorist event. Funding comes from the Office for Domestic Preparedness, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The program began in the late 1990s, but demand has substantially increased since Sept. 11, 2001, Rape’ says. TEEX has held WMD disaster drills in over two dozen Texas municipalities, major airports in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, and the Port of Houston.
The planning for each exercise takes about three months. An initial planning meeting is followed by a class in the Incident Command System. Then a Senior Officials Workshop is held to discuss strategic issues that would face a community in case of a WMD incident and what officials can do afterward to help the community to recover.
The NERRTC team designs and plans the disaster scenario and coordinates the exercise. Each scenario is designed for a specific community, using real businesses, landmarks, locations and events. Rape’ and his team take photographs of potential targets in each community and use them in the drill to enhance the real-life scenarios.
“Local jurisdictions want to test their own plans and integrate their response with adjacent communities, state resources and the federal response. They do not want some fictional location — they want to test their plan on their own turf,” Rape’ says. “The events must unfold using the threat they face, the risks they know they have and response capabilities they own or those they’ll request.”
The goal is to bring officials from all areas of a jurisdiction, including police and fire departments, public works, health department, Red Cross, National Guard, even the FBI. “We hope to get agencies and individuals to interact, and access their emergency operations plans,” Rape’ says. “We make sure the exercise gives everyone something to do. They learn to circle the wagons and send for the cavalry.”
After the exercise ends, the emergency responders and TEEX team members meet to discuss what the community feels worked well and they want to sustain, and what areas need improvement.
Local emergency managers and responders reported that the Bryan-College Station exercise went well, but said they would look into improving their communications and their system of tracking information on the deployment of equipment and responders.