U. Arkansas Tests Emergency Response to Arena Attack

U-WIRE-03/31/2006-U. Arkansas: U. Arkansas hosts emergency response exercise (C) 2006 Arkansas Traveler Via U-WIRE

By Pamela Acosta, Arkansas Traveler (U. Arkansas)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Emergency-response agencies from Washington and Benton counties practiced responding to large-scale emergencies Wednesday at University of Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena. The Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness Exercise allowed emergency-response agencies to be prepared for threats of weapons of mass destruction and other emergencies.

"There's so many things that could go wrong during emergencies, the best thing we can do is prepare with stimulations," said John Luther, the Exercise Director and representative for the Washington County Department of Emergency Management.

The simulation started at 10:04 a.m. with an improvised explosive device simulating a chemical threat.

The simulation-serum gas was dispersed inside Bud Walton Arena, where observers, media, evaluators, and actors waited.

Victims, played by drama and EMT students and other volunteers, were asked to evacuate the building as alarms beeped in the background.

Outside, the victims were helped by emergency responders and agencies from both counties.

Victims wore tags to inform the responders what was wrong with them. In the simulation, the gas caused some injuries, and several participants were supposed to be injured when exiting the building and getting trampled on the way out.

"The best thing about the exercise was that the first responders didn't know what the situations were until they occurred," said Laurie Roy, an EMT B student from NWAAC. "Hopefully the responders get some good experience out of it."

The second exercise was a bomb threat. After firefighters were called for the chemical threat, a victim, Carrie Hamilton, came out of the arena carrying a duffel bag she found, simulating a ticking bomb. Several firefighters were "killed" by the second explosion. After a while, the bomb squad came to the scene sporting two robots.

Decontamination was also a part of the simulation exercise.

"We have the advantage of knowing what is going on," saidJim Dixon, the public information representative for Emergency Management and Homeland Security for Benton County.

"In the real thing, we won't know what to expect. Terrorists' attacks are an on-going series of events."

Luther said, "We want the responders to see what it's like and to see how to fix things, practice and learn."

"Evaluators will emphasize on the good as much as on what needs to be improved," Dixon said.

Luther said one of the weaknesses was time but it was something that was hard to overcome.

"Time is always our enemy," he said.

The specialized rescue teams, like the SWAT or Bomb squad are slower to arrive because it is not the first response, he said.

"How do we fix that problem? By having more specialized equipment available to local agencies," he said.

Another simulation was done two years ago in the Benton County area, but Luther said this was the first full scale exercise with two counties and 20 agencies total participating.

He said they were also planning with the Fort Smith bomb division in order to work together in the future.

The last simulation, sponsored by Wal-Mart, was created by the local agencies.

Luther said this simulation was different because the federal government required them to follow certain guidelines.

The Department of Homeland Security set standards that must be met in order for agencies from the different counties to receive more funding in the future, he said.

Nothing like the simulations was done before Sept. 11, Luther said.

"September 11 opened a lot of people's eyes," he said.

"There will be terrorist events and natural events, we have to prepare our citizens and responders to avoid events if possible, and have disaster response."

Virgil Hamilton, an usher for the university's sporting events, said making buildings safer was necessary.

"That is what our job is. That way more people can enjoy, knowing that it's safer," Hamilton said. He said ushers check possible threats but there is still a possibility something could get past them.Hamilton and his wife were volunteer actors.

Luther said Fayetteville was probably not under a major threat, but it was good to be prepared because exercises like these help not only with weapons of mass destruction but also with mass casualties from natural disasters like the tornadoes of past weeks.

The exercises also served to test new equipment that was bought with the funds from last year. About $700,000 from funds, which vary from year to year, were used to buy equipment for decontamination, communication devices, trucks and things like masks, Luther said.

One of the things being tested was a new communication device. The Arkansas Wireless Information Network is a statewide radio system that allows state agencies to communicate by radio even from long-range.

"We could communicate by radio to Conway for re-enforcement, for example," Luther said.

Communication with the entire state would still be available if the phones went out.

"It will complement the local communication system," Luther said. "The equipment could be used for other things, not just WMDs," he said.

Luther said he was very thankful for the neighboring counties and to the university for their cooperation.

"With the networking and cooperation effort, I think that spells success," he said.

Driving, parking and pedestrian traffic around the arena was restricted from Monday evening until the exercise was finished, at around 4 p.m. Tuesday. West Leroy Pond Drive and parking lots 56B, 56C, 60, & 62 were closed to traffic. Also, some bus routes were rerouted away from the exercise area, according to the release.

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