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Disaster drill hits few snags

The Baltimore Sun

Though a Maryland Emergency Management Agency administrator praised Carroll County's "Hurricane Zephyr" disaster exercise, if that crisis had been real, the county's call center would have been overburdened, the paperwork and instructions given at a temporary shelter confusing, and communications delayed between dispatchers and crews at the site of a train derailment in Taneytown.

"We did hit some snafus ...," Debbie Saylor, director of Carroll's exercise, said during a debriefing session with participants. Of the emergency operations center set up in the county office building, Saylor said, "it is very understaffed."

In the simulation, an 89-car train derailed after hitting debris on the tracks two days after a hurricane , causing an explosion and propane leak-fueled fire. About 70 county roads were flooded or covered with wreckage. Residents, some who had their pets with them, had to be evacuated to the National Guard Armory in Westminster.

This imaginary scenario was part of a regional drill Thursday conducted by emergency offices in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, in coordination with federal agencies.

The drill, starting 48 hours after a hurricane hit, focused less on the initial tempest and more on its aftermath. The Category 3 Hurricane Zephyr had already killed 207 and caused 1 million people to lose electricity.

Overall, the 150 employees and volunteers coordinating Carroll's emergency exercise said it went smoothly. They gathered for an assessment at the Westminster armory Thursday afternoon to review their performance over dinner.

The exercise did not incur many costs since county employees and volunteers executed it, MEMA regional administrator Carl Lee said.

Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding recommended that the emergency operations center set-up a satellite office with more jacks, spare phones and people to man them. Otherwise, he said, the county's 911 call center would quickly be strained in the aftermath of an emergency.

"If it were real, you'd have to have that room set up with 20 phones outside the EOC or you're just going to flounder," Spaulding said.

The safety director at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville said her staff successfully formulated plans to evacuate half of the psychiatric hospital's 400 patients. The exercise assumed that water started leaking through Springfield's damaged roofs.

The hospital's staff packed 25 residents into a van, but an additional 175 patients were told to prepare for evacuation, safety director Arlene Stephens said.

Many participants said the December derailment of a train transporting hazardous chemicals in Marriottsville near the Carroll-Howard county line helped them prepare for Thursday's exercise.

During the simulated Taneytown derailment, fire crews from Taneytown, Harney, Union Bridge, Frederick County, and some from Pennsylvania worked to suppress the propane vapors.

Jeff Kreimer, Carroll County hazmat team leader, said anyone within a 1-mile radius of the gas leak should be evacuated. The crews used water to prevent the propane gas from re-igniting.

County spokeswoman Vivian Laxton stressed that residents should be prepared for a hurricane. That involves having a portable radio, flashlight with batteries and at least one gallon of water per person per day, for three days, Laxton said, citing guidelines from the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Lee said Carroll's drill was more functional than those simulated in the other six Baltimore metropolitan jurisdictions he visited Thursday.

"It was definitely the most involved," Lee said.



The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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