As I watched the teams from multiple counties go through this drill I heard the radio announcement voice in my head say “If this has been an actual emergency, there would have been a lot less official rubberneckers taking snapshots.”
It makes perfect sense – if the point of a drill is to run a scenario and determine how well you’re doing things then you need observers who aren’t a part of the response to watch and grade. There were also other folks occasionally providing input to the suited-up response teams who were seemed to be running the scenario and providing the simulation participants with information about what they were discovering as they went.
The day started like all official operations: with a lot of waiting around. Those of us who’d shown up from the press to observe were given time to talk to Arlington and Alexandria county officials about the exercise, as well as a representative from the railroad management organization CSX. The visuals got a lot more interesting once we were led to the site of the simulated incident.
Here’s how Arlington’s website explained the simulation scenario:
The scenario designed to exercise Arlington County and the City of Alexandria involves the simulated detonation of a vehicle-based improvised explosive device (VBIED) near the rail tracks north of Crystal City (an area known as the “RO”), creating a mutual aid response. The simulated explosion creates a mass casualty situation with many burn patients. To add to the complexity of the incident, the scenario dictates that a CSX rail car was damaged in the explosion, creating a hazardous materials situation. In all, the scenario is designed to test the capabilities of incident management and coordination of pre-hospital and medical surge resources.
Put another way: something blew up, hurt a bunch of folks, and now that rail car over there is pouring out a bunch of something that may or may not be worse for you than high fructose corn syrup. In reality it’s water in a training car. In fake reality it’s a solvent that you wouldn’t want to gargle with but which isn’t going to make you ill from breathing its fumes.
Perhaps as a warning not to get too cheeky, we press were situated down at the end where everyone was dead and represented by mannequins. Farther away were civilians who’d been recruited to play injured victims, recruited from the community volunteer emergency response team. Some just laid there, some had been asked to wail in response to their fake injuries. Once the situation had been assessed by the first responders they were carried away from the scene.
Once the injured were carted away the men in the bunny suits showed up and began to deal with the leaking car. In chatting with the CRX rep I observed that they seemed to be sampling the output from the train to determine what it was. He stated that by the time they’re at this point in the simulation or a real incident, they know what it is – CSX provides them multiple ways to find out whats in a car based on their shipping records. Hazmat collected some of the material in a bucket and dipped a test strip in it regardless, verifying the provided information.
The hazmat folks got the leak turned off at the top of the train with another valve, which they were able to do because the simulation scenario stated that it was a sheared-off valve doing the leaking. If the train integrity had been damaged the response would have had to be different and more extensive. After that it was all over from where we could see. Down at the other end and out of our view a simulated injury tent had been set up where they had been dealing with the injuries as specified. Once the whole operation was over they’d do a quick wrap-up and further analysis of how it went would come later in the week.
There are some more pictures from the event in a flickr set for your perusal.