Preparing for the Worst with a Mock Terrorism Attack

May 2, 2006
Florida county pits itself against terrorism and challenges of emergency communications

Apr. 29--DeBARY -- They're known as the devious duo.

Together, Jim Mauney and Charlie Craig have contrived all sorts of terrorist plots -- from bombs at Daytona International Speedway to a plane crash on the beach.

On Friday, they took their terrorism training exercise to the next level with simultaneous train derailments in New Smyrna Beach and DeBary. The elaborate scenario included actual explosions and fire along with simulated chemical spills, a bus accident and mass casualties -- all the work of suspected terrorists.

"We train with what we think will happen," said Mauney, deputy fire chief for Volusia County Emergency Management. "We keep this as real as possible."

Mauney and Craig, the operations coordinator, studied railway incidents long before the bombings in London and Madrid. They devised the plan used in Friday's drill three years ago. Each year, they try to add a different element to the training so the emergency responders can learn to be ready for almost anything.

"Terrorism is not the only threat," Mauney said. "It's just another threat."

The county has been training for various disasters for about two decades, but the exercises have become more complicated and terrorism-focused since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when federal funds became available for the programs. This year, $40,000 of a homeland security grant paid the cost of Friday's terrorism training exercise that brought together more than 50 emergency-response agencies.

The plot that tested their coordination, communications and response procedures begins with a jolt.

10:02 a.m.: An explosion rocks a freight train in New Smyrna Beach, sending several 1-ton chlorine cylinders into a school field. A chlorine vapor cloud spreads over the area, sickening children at the school.

10:05 a.m.: A stolen ambulance stops on the train tracks in DeBary near the power plant, forcing a freight train to slam on the emergency brakes. The ambulance drops a bomb and speeds off, and an explosion blows containers of hazardous materials into a field and derails the train.

But Mauney and Craig are just getting warmed up.

As the ambulance rounds the corner down the street, it crashes into a school bus that rolls over. Two people in the ambulance flee.

During the drill, it took less than 15 minutes for agencies across the county to realize they had similar disasters and begin coordinating their communication efforts. More than 30 public information officers "played along" Friday and met at a joint information center.

"It's very hectic and somebody has to take charge," Capt. Rhett Bradley with Volusia County Fire Services said.

The scene in DeBary was replete with volunteer "victims," made over with bloody makeup and ripped clothes. They writhed in pain, played dead in the grass or joked with others that they needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Dozens of firetrucks descended on the scene, first to treat 42 victims in the bus accident and then to handle a fuming sulfuric acid spill from the derailed train where bottle rockets simulated smaller explosions.Drills like this play out all across the country. Recently, North Dakota officials looked at the Columbine High School massacre to prepare for a similar situation. In Nashville, emergency responders simulated a building explosion and collapse, train derailment, chemical spill and mass casualties in four counties. The Baltimore area trained for a fiery plane crash where terrorists transporting a toxic gas got into a shootout at the airport.

Agencies can learn from training elsewhere through a program run through the Department of Homeland Security, which sent a researcher to Friday's drill in DeBary.

By the time the exercises wrapped up at both Volusia sites shortly after 2:30 p.m., Mauney said they already had learned some lessons.

"We did identify some communication issues we need to work on," he said, adding there were other minor issues with getting out alerts and warnings. "Our big emphasis is to get these agencies to talk and work together. All disasters are local. It has to start here."

[Orlando Sentinel, The (FL) (KRT) -- 05/01/06]