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Drill tests disaster response


Reality intruded into a daylong disaster drill that involved hundreds of Harford's law enforcement officers, fire and emergency responders and volunteers.

While the mock drama played out at various locations in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen, a man was shot and killed in Edgewood Wednesday afternoon. Officers were on the scene of the murder within three minutes, said Robert B. Thomas, spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff's Department.

"The drill at several simultaneous locations showed us how far we could stretch resources and what the impact would be on operations," said Thomas.

"More than 10 deputies immediately secured the scene, interviewed witnesses and assisted investigators at the same time as many of their colleagues were participating in mock incidents in Havre de Grace and Aberdeen," he said.

Organizers spent a year planning for the drill, the first of its magnitude in Central Maryland. A $257,000 Homeland Security grant helped pay for the exercise and much of the planning. Innovative Emergency Management, a national training company with offices in Bel Air, produced and coordinated the event and will assist the county in preparing its post-drill report to the federal agency.

"We started planning by asking everyone involved what objectives to test," said Sid Baccam, IEM senior analyst. "About 30 agencies wanted an exercise that would tax personnel and the communication system."

Each incident was designed to require a multijurisdictional response and test communications capabilities among the agencies, Thomas said.

The day began with a fiery car bombing that caused multiple injuries at the Havre de Grace Community Center. Victims underwent makeup treatment and were told the nature of their injuries to enhance the realism. Stephen Sopel's left leg was broken in the blast. He wondered how his seeing-eye dog would respond to a thunderous explosion, victims moaning and thick, acrid smoke. The black lab never left his side, as he lay on the ground calling for help.

"This is a very good experience for emergency responders," said Sopel, 26, of Bel Air. "It will help them be aware that people with disabilities could be involved in disasters, and I am not sure a lot of them know what to do for us."

The event attracted more than 100 volunteers, several of whom were disabled, Thomas said.

"It provides us with a unique challenge and an excellent opportunity to show how we are prepared to deal with everyone," Thomas said.

Response teams arrived within eight minutes of the 911 call, made at 11:30 a.m., and set up a command post two minutes later. Before assisting the critically wounded, firefighters had to determine the nature of the explosion.

"We went by the book," said Rich Gardiner, spokesman for Harford County fire and emergency services. "We can't charge in. We called out the walking wounded and then determined there were no secondary bomb devices. You have to deem a scene safe. You never want to trade responders for victims."

While victims were evaluated and transported to three area hospitals, the drill moved to a hostage situation at Havre de Grace High School that required SWAT and hazmat teams and the bomb squad, all while a boat crash occupied rescue divers at the city's waterfront.

No live ammunition was used in any scenario. Officers had emptied their weapons. Yellow tags on firearms denoted all had been inspected and rated safe.

"We wrote these scenarios to push ourselves past the limits," said Maj. John Van Gilder, spokesman for the Havre de Grace Police Department.

Before the Havre de Grace incidents were resolved, calamities played out at the Aberdeen City Hall, where a gunman, possibly one of the original car bombers, wounded one employee and held others hostage.

"Our job was to test how we would respond initially, send in a crisis team, react to injuries and develop intelligence from the perpetrator that might help with what was happening in Bel Air," said Sgt. Fred Budnick of the Aberdeen Police Department.

The day ended with multiple, gang-related shootings at the Harford County Courthouse in Bel Air. The building was locked down at about 6 p.m., while a SWAT team made a sweep of all three floors. They located the perpetrator and his accomplice.

"This is an active shooter case, where officers inside have no clue," said Capt. Steven E. Bodway of the county sheriff's department.

Throughout the day, events were broadcast and identified as part of the drill on police scanners. Evaluators took copious notes during every incident and will spend the next weeks reviewing.

"The exercise was a great learning experience that will benefit the county in many ways," Thomas said. "There were challenges presented to all participating agencies, particularly with coordination and communication. Unless you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can become complacent in your preparations."


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