LEWISTON – In a basement room below the city’s central fire station, a host of experts will quietly wage war against terrorism today.

The tabletop exercise that gets underway about 8:30 a.m. in the county’s Emergency Operations Center is designed around a fictitious hazardous materials incident. It’s the brainchild of an expert in such things, contracted by the federal government to stage the show.

It’s the first of three exercises planned to take place between now and next spring. The final exercise will be an actual mock disaster, complete with FBI agents being called to investigate a terror plot involving a weapon of mass destruction.

Huddled around desks littered with maps and blueprints and photographs on Tuesday will be representatives of the county, state and federal Emergency Management agencies. They’ll be joined by state and federal Environmental Protection Agency staffers. Firefighters from the Twin Cities will be there as well. So will be some of L-A’s cops. MeadWestvaco’s Hazmat team will have members observing. Local hospitals and ambulance services will have people there, too, alongside others from the 911 communications center.

When all is said and done, about $23,000 in Homeland Security Department funds will have been expended.

And emergency responders will have a much better idea as to how well their plans to handle a hazardous materials incident function.

“Everything will be reviewed” by FEMA experts, said county EMA Director Joanne Potvin. During the so-called “hot wash” – a term related to decontamination efforts – they’ll also offer suggestions for next time.

That will come in the fall, probably early November, Potvin said. That’s when the desktop exercise Tuesday will be expanded to include the facilities that will handle calls and send response teams.

In that exercise, Potvin said, things will be acted upon as if an actual incident were under way.

“They’ll do everything except actually roll” from fire and police stations and ambulance bays, she said.

The trucks, ambulances and Hazmat teams will roll next spring, when the final exercise in the series takes place. That’s when the MeadWestvaco Hazmat team, joining firefighters and police , will respond to calls of an explosion and find evidence of terrorist activity – an effort to turn a hazardous material into a weapon that could deal death to scores of people and leave widespread destruction in its wake.

Safe Handling of Auburn has volunteered to be the target for all three exercises. Paul Turina, who’s in charge of Safe Handling’s operations, and Ann Patterson, the company’s director of safety and quality, will be active participants in each of the exercises.

Turina said Monday company participation brings with it several benefits. For one, he said, it shows Safe Handling as a responsible corporate citizen, and helps to reinforce its emphasis on safety.

It also complies with professional standards that call for companies like Safe Handling, which ship, package or store chemicals, to undergo an annual review of emergency response plans.

And it gives the company the benefit of having experts review its plans and make suggestions for improvements where needed, he noted.

Potvin said the county EMA, along with its state and federal counterparts, has been preparing against terrorists threats since 1997. She has a handbook issued at that time that outlines actions to be taken against terrorism. Ominously, its cover features a drawing of the World Trade Center towers.

Potvin said renewed emphasis has been placed on the those preparations since the attacks of Sept. 11. Tuesday’s desktop exercise, and those to follow later in the year, will be the first that actually lead up to a terrorist scenario for the local agency, however.


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