Harford County's Emergency Operations Center a few miles north of Bel Air was packed Tuesday, as county, state and municipal emergency officials responded to an attack on the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in nearby Delta, Pa.
To the good fortune of everyone in the room and those living in the communities surrounding the nuclear power plant, it was a mock attack designed to test the readiness of various emergency response systems.
"This is a drill," Rick Ayers, Harford's deputy director of emergency services and the county's emergency manager, repeated throughout the exercise, which began shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday and extended into Wednesday.
Once the EOC was activated to Level 1 status, Ayers took charge, while Linda Ploener, manager of emergency planning, assumed command whenever Ayers was out of the room. He frequently left to take part in conference calls with his counterparts at the state level in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Though the mood in the room was lighthearted during breaks, as agency representatives conversed with each other, it quickly turned to business as Ayers provided updates about the fluid situation at Peach Bottom.
The scenario involved a group of "hostiles" landing by helicopter on the roof of a building on plant property and proceeded to take over the plant, overpowering the security force. The helicopter also crashed.
Ayers explained later that officials expected an "imminent release of radioactivity" affecting the immediate area outside the plant and a 10-mile emergency planning zone in all directions that includes a significant area in northern Harford County encompassing the communities of Street, Whiteford and Darlington.
Those gathered at the EOC followed procedures for a recommended evacuation of people in the 10-mile zone.
"I thought everything went really well," Ayers said. "I was very happy; I thought the people that have responsibilities in Harford County did extremely well."
He noted Tuesday was the first time the exercise, which is held every two years, has involved a "hostile action" against the plant.
Additional exercises for Harford County involved a Tuesday morning evaluation of the readiness plans of schools within the emergency planning zone. The schools affected included Darlington Elementary, Dublin Elementary, North Harford Elementary, Middle and High schools and Harford Christian School in Darlington.
Evaluations of Harford County "reception centers," where people would report in the event of a radiological release, as well as local shelters, were held Wednesday, Ayers said. The reception centers are Fallston High School and Harford Community College.
Multiple Harford County government agencies, as well as supporting entities, were represented in the EOC Tuesday, including Director of Administration Mary Chance, who represented County Executive David Craig, as well as the Department of Emergency Services, Harford County Public Schools, the Sheriff's Office, the Department of Public Works, the Health Department, Parks and Recreation, the Humane Society of Harford County, the Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace police departments, the Bel Air Barrack of the Maryland State Police and the American Red Cross of Central Maryland.
Ayers said 85 people were present. Some were veterans of the past Peach Bottom emergency preparedness drills; others were attending for the first time.
"I've been through all of the Peach Bottom exercises, but I learn something new every time," County Health Officer Susan Kelly said.
Representatives of the Maryland Emergency Management Administration and Cecil County, even Amtrak, were also present, plus observers from St. Mary's and Calvert counties. Calvert County is home to the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant. The exercise also involved emergency agencies in Cecil County and Chester, Lancaster and York counties in Pennsylvania.
Glenn Fehring of Exelon Generation, Peach Bottom's co-owner, served as the controller for the exercise, and he and a handful of evaluators from ICF International, a FEMA contractor, studied the proceedings closely.
Jim Richmond, a government liaison with the Red Cross, said he is a regular participant in the Peach Bottom exercises and also took part in preparedness drills regarding the stock of chemical weapons at the military's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
The chemical weapons drills have not been held since the ECBC got rid of its stocks, Richmond said.
He said it was good training for catastrophic events such as a hazardous materials spill involving a train or truck on I-95.
"Between the [rail] corridor and the I-95 corridor, there's a lot of hazardous materials coming up through Harford County," Richmond said.
Peach Bottom's 10-mile emergency preparedness zone includes the Harford communities of Whiteford, Darlington and Street.
Street resident Gene Jones, a member of the county's Local Emergency Preparedness Committee, was present at the EOC Tuesday.
"As they say, I have a vested interest," he said.
Jones noted that one of the plant's 97 emergency sirens in about a quarter of a mile from his house, although the sirens were not used for Tuesday's drill.
"We all are a little concerned, because any kind of accident would have an effect, but overall I think Exelon has done a good job and I think they really and truly are well aware of all the problems that could arise and do keep a close eye on everything," he said.
The exercises are mandated by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the participants are evaluated by FEMA contractors.