Disaster Test Responders for Theoretical Fairgrounds Attack

NORMAN - About 20 people Thursday were lying on the cold concrete inside a building at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds.

Smoke lingered as a few cried out for help. Others could only moan; some couldn't even do that.

Help arrived as two men covered in protective suits and bright green boots examined the scene, and a few of the "victims" were led outside the building.

After a few minutes, the rescuers suddenly evacuated, leaving the more seriously "injured" behind to lie helplessly on the ground - until they got clearance to get up and take a break.

The "wounded" got up, walked over to nearby bleachers and waited for the next scenario of the emergency preparedness exercise to begin.

The scene was part of a full-scale exercise conducted by the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security and led by the Norman fire and police departments.

In the disaster scenario, an explosion happened during a fertilizer show at the fairgrounds. No one knew if the explosion was accidental or intentional, so officials called in a hazardous materials unit as a precaution.

Some time after fire personnel helped people in the building who walked out on their own, the two men in the hazardous materials suits walked inside and assisted those who could walk out.

They left in a hurry, though, after discovering a potential bomb inside the building.

Emergency personnel, primarily from Norman, demonstrated what they would do in a multifaceted emergency while evaluators looked on to report what the firefighters and police did well and what needed improvement.

Agencies that provided mutual aid, evaluators and/or observers for the drill included the Cleveland County and Oklahoma County sheriff's offices; Oklahoma City, Moore and Shawnee fire departments; Shawnee and University of Oklahoma police departments; and Lt. Chuck Linhardt of the Edmond Police Department.

Norman Assistant Fire Chief Jim Bailey said about 40 emergency personnel, evaluators and observers were involved.

Jerry Lojka, public information officer for the Midwest City Fire Department, said even more agencies usually participate in full-scale exercises. Norman Regional Hospital and its EMSSTAT paramedics could not participate that day. State agencies often take part in situations involving possible terrorism.

"With what we have, we're doing OK," said Lojka, who worked as an evaluator. "They're doing well going through the mechanics of it, but we're missing some people."

The "victims" were played by 22 Moore Norman Technology Center nursing students and nine Norman Fire Department recruits.

While the exercise was designed to train emergency personnel, it also provided insight for the nursing students.

"It helps you see the other side," said Grant Gardner of Oklahoma City.

"Patients, in general, are in a lot of pain. You don't get the response time you want for help, and now you know what the snags are," he said.

Firefighters did appear slow in rescuing people.

At the beginning, three people ran out to them and called for help, but firefighters seemed to ignore them while methodically setting up their decontamination site.

Their deliberate pace continued all morning as they planned and carried out their mission.

But Bailey, the Norman assistant chief, said dashing into such scenes could be hazardous, possibly deadly, for emergency personnel trying to save people.

Firefighters, instead, assess the situation first and put on protective clothing, then everyone inside is cleaned of toxins before transport to a hospital. "We would be very hesitant to be charging into a hazardous materials atmosphere," he said. "Sometimes, it's not appropriate to go in right away without taking precautions."

Larry Hansen, the Oklahoma City Fire Department's battalion chief of operations, said the exercise also allowed various departments to test their ability to communicate with each other through new 800 megahertz radios. "We can patch our radio system into theirs, and this is the first year we are able to do that," Hansen said.

The full-scale exercise Thursday followed a "tabletop" exercise Tuesday, also through the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security, in which state and local public safety personnel train and discuss ways to improve their collaboration in the event of large emergencies.