HazMat Exercise Teach Agencies How to Work Together

Members of the Roanoke based Haz-Mat team practice evacuatiing an injured person during last weeks drill.
Members of the Roanoke based Haz-Mat team practice evacuatiing an injured person during last weeks drill.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in Philadelphia sponsored a three day HazMat exercise at the 9th Street Industrial Park in Southeast Roanoke City last week. Local residents and those who work at the park were asked not to be alarmed if they saw police, fire and hazardous material cleanup trucks flying around – or folks dressed from head to toe in HazMat suits.

 It was all part of the first large-scale exercise of its kind in the area said Myles Bartos, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA. Participants included Roanoke Fire-EMS and Police, as well as local and state public safety, environmental, and health agencies.

 A variety of HazMat scenarios were played out in a vacant warehouse and outdoors – with a “meth lab” being the principal scenario. Each agency involved had a role to play. Bartos said that even though this particular HazMat scenario involved the investigation of a meth lab, where dangerous chemicals can lead to explosions and fire, the lessons learned and the way each agency interacts with each other can apply to many types of disasters, natural or manmade.

 “These scenarios are somewhat canned but we always tweak them to the venue and the target audience,” said Bartos, as he took a break in the regional EPA’s command center mobile unit. He is one of 27 on-scene coordinators in the mid-Atlantic region, charged with ordering cleanups when environmental issues arise.  The National Contingency Plan, noted Bartos, requires that localities prepare and train for disaster response.

 Bartos met with local public service agencies in Roanoke before the HazMat exercise, asking this question: “are we properly prepared to respond to catastrophic events?” It doesn’t have to be terrorist activity adds Bartos. In any case he asks,  “how do we respond to it?” In addition to Roanoke City police and fire/EMS, the state bomb squad, the Department of Environmental Quality and HazMat crews took part.

 The primary target for last week’s exercise was the regional HazMat team – there are 13 across the state – with one based in Roanoke.  The scenario involving a crystal meth lab also included simulated explosives and booby traps set to keep law enforcement and others away.  One scenario included an injured security guard and a fatality. In another, people were trying to rob the meth lab operators.

 “The [Roanoke City] SWAT team came in to clear the building and find the suspects,” noted Bartos, who devised ways to “keep it fresh, keep it real, keep people guessing.”  The vacant building being used was ideal he added, since it contained rooms set up like a laboratory, making it easier to simulate a meth production facility.

In some cases Roanoke City police were the first players in the scenario exercise, responding to a report of a burglary for example when Bartos acted as a dispatcher, calling about the possible break-in. “There’s been very good communication,” said Bartos, who sat down with each agency and assessed their performance on a daily basis during the exercise.

Bartos observed how each agency communicated with each other and how they worked together once the hazardous scenario was identified. He pronounced himself pleased with the roles Roanoke City agencies played during the HazMat exercise. “All the planning and training we do – it doesn’t really matter what the [specific scenario] is – the assessment and the protocols are going to be the same.”

 Bartos was a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency until 9/11 happened; when the federal government freed up more money to train agencies for disasters he came aboard full time. One of his first assignments was testing for anthrax when shortly after 9/11 someone started shipped that deadly powder through the mail. As for last week’s exercise, “it’s been a good learning experience.”

 By Gene Marrano