Officials practice disaster response

The Baltimore Sun

As Hurricane Mindy barreled north with 130-mph winds and the promise of a Chesapeake Bay storm surge as high as 8 feet, Anne Arundel County fire Battalion Chief John McNally and Lt. Kent Roddy were trying to keep track of the department's available manpower and debating whether to get a 6- or 10-wheel dump truck.

"We're not looking for weight distribution -- just to clear roads," Roddy told McNally, who sipped a cup of coffee across a conference table.

Amid renewed concerns about how agencies communicate during disasters, a regional brain trust of emergency, health and public works officials used the faux crisis yesterday to practice their planning during an all-morning exercise at Anne Arundel County fire headquarters.

Yesterday's event was the first of four that will take place over the next year, with scenarios that include an Inner Harbor dirty bomb exercise in Baltimore City, a truck bomb drill at the National Security Agency in Howard County and a hazardous-material train derailment situation in Baltimore County.

"There's no way to predict what will go wrong, but if they have the tools, they'll be set," said Robert Murgallis, a retired fire chief from Santa Clara, Calif., and an instructor with the National Fire Academy who helped oversee the drill. "Are they going to have to dance? Sure. But with training, they can fall into management mode."

Forecasters said this month that water and atmospheric conditions in the Atlantic Ocean foreshadow the possibility of seven to nine tropical storms becoming hurricanes this season. And emergency responders still remember the damage inflicted by Hurricane Isabel, which hit Maryland as a tropical storm in 2003 and flooded bayshore communities.

Such face-to-face interaction is particularly crucial because the state has yet to integrate its radio systems. In a report last week, the state Department of Transportation said rescue workers from state and county agencies could not communicate with each other by radio when they responded to a seven-vehicle crash on the Bay Bridge in May that killed three people.

But officials countered that the emergency response protocols -- such as setting up a mobile command post where the agency leaders gathered -- minimized the radio troubles.

"You're all in one room discussing what needs to be done, and if one agency needs to make a call to responders on a different radio frequency, they can go make that call," said Battalion Chief Michael Cox, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

Gov. Martin O'Malley discussed interoperable communications with local leaders for more than an hour at last week's Maryland Association of Counties meeting and said he considers it unacceptable that nearly six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the state's communications systems aren't seamless.

Officials said the simulated events not only allow agencies to practice how they will respond, but to network and become familiar with the other agencies they will rely on if a man-made or natural disaster hits.

"It's helpful when we all get together and see each other's faces," said Assistant Chief Kevin Simmons of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue.

Unlike some disaster drills that involve more than 100 employees and volunteers responding to a fake disaster as it might play out, yesterday's drill was more about management in the leadup to an event, with a limited but key number of participants, said Burton W. Phelps, a retired Anne Arundel fire chief and instructor. Also participating were officials from Baltimore and Howard counties and Baltimore City.

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