NJ emergency crews join for response drill
Drill brings together local, state and federal agencies
By Lucas K. Murray
Gloucester County Times
PAULSBORO, N.J. — The old adage goes "learn from your mistakes."
In reports following the 9/11 attacks, authorities acknowledged deficiencies in communication, coordination and procedures in responding to the World Trade Center site that ultimately added to the death toll.
From that tragic day, the need for first responders to be on the same page both in technology and response methodology was amplified to emergency workers across the country.
Firefighters, police and county officials regularly drill together and polish their skills as was exhibited in an emergency drill in downtown Woodbury last November which shut down half of Route 45 in the city for five hours.
However, the first exercise to bring together local, state and federal agencies along with area hospitals and the Red Cross was executed from a second-floor boardroom at ExxonMobil's Research and Engineering Facility Tuesday.
Dr. Glenn Paulson, director of the New Jersey Center for Public Health Preparedness at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey said the exercise brings together the entire range of agencies and organizations that would have significant responsibilities in the event of a major chemical accident.
"They are presented with a rapidly evolving event beginning with a tanker truck turning over as it exits Interstate 295 and in a series of small time increments, they'll determine who would be doing what and where they'd be doing it and with whom they'd be doing it," Paulson said.
The morning started with comments from a representative from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as well as one from Honeywell. The company is the world's largest producer of hydrogen fluoride, the substance featured in the exercise.
At 10 a.m. two dozen groups represented in one room were assembled and briefed that the rig toppled near the truck stop at exit 18 in East Greenwich.
Ten minutes later they were advised that the tanker carried a placard indicating that its contents were both corrosive and poisonous and emitting an a noxious vapor moving with a northwest wind.
At each stage, responders are hit with different unexpected scenarios as they coordinate with each other and go over contingency plans for everything from security for the scene to mass triage and causalities.
"They are going to be put in a failure mode and have to come up with solutions in the same time frame as the exercise," Paulson said, adding that agencies would be experiencing significant emergency room traffic.
All the while they are engaged with questions by two facilitators that focus the group's overall response.
The media was not privy to the exercise itself.
"You push the system to and beyond its limits; that's the only way you'll learn things," Paulson said of what the agencies would experience.
Tom Butts, Gloucester County's Director of the Office of Emergency Response, noted that the county is home to several chemical and petrochemical plants. Though strides have been taken to secure the facilities themselves, Butts feels the danger to the public exists more so on the roadways and rails where tankers regularly move potentially dangerous substances.
"We're putting multiple disciplines together to improve our response in time of need," Butts said. "You practice, you practice and practice and hope you never need it, but in some point in time you may, but you're prepared to do it."
The state mandates that each county holds a major drill every year, unless a significant event takes place like a significant snowstorm. In 2007, the Sunoco Refinery fire proved to be an incident the county Office of Emergency Management could learn from.
"We didn't have enough foam capabilities in the county," Butts said of the firefighting substance used to put down large fires. "To address that, we approached the state and obtained a Neptune system, which is a massive water pump and foam delivery system."
The county now has 8,000 gallons of foam on wheels, ready to go when needed.
Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton said though thousands of drivers use major roads throughout the county every day, often they don't have any idea of what's in the tankers that drive alongside them and are blind to the dangers that surround them.
"I think everyone in this room recognizes and understands what needs to be done in order to be prepared," Dalton said. "This training exercise is a gigantic step forward, making sure that although we hope something like this never happens, we can be assured Gloucester County will be prepared."