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First Responders Hone Disaster Training

Joint exercises at Pentagon, Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington, simulate chemical weapons attack.

Catherine Kane’s reaction seemed as real, and as disturbing, as the real thing.

“Nobody’s helping me! We’re going to die!” she screamed, as firefighters wearing gas masks and protective clothing pulled her from the scene of a mock terrorist attack.

Operation Gallant Fox, staged at the Pentagon and Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington Thursday, July 24, tested how well local emergency personnel could deal with a large-scale chemical, nuclear or biological attack. It was the third major training exercise since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“This is a test to see if certain protocols are actually working,” said John Jester, director of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency.

Shortly after 10 a.m., PFPA staffers responded to a simulated truck bomb at the Metrobus stop near the Pentagon’s South Parking lot. Arlington firefighters and emergency medical technicians arrived shortly to rescue and treat nearly 100 volunteers like Kane, who feigned exposure to a nerve toxin.

FIREFIGHTERS RUSHED into the hot zone and dragged victims through a makeshift decontamination shower to wash away dangerous chemicals. They took the victims to a treatment area, where emergency medical teams treated injuries as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, an exercise at the Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington tested procedures for processing and treating victims of a disaster. The hospital is the closest medical facility to the Pentagon, so doctors there are ready to receive many of the victims in the event of a real attack. “We have a really in-depth disaster plan, and every department in the hospital has a role,” said Amy Goodwin, a spokesperson for the hospital.

Officials immediately began critiquing the rescue process. “It’s almost like an overload,” said Jester. “We have a building with 23,000 people. How do you communicate with all of them?”

Communication proved to be the most difficult aspect, Jester said. Disaster management at the Pentagon involves not just the thousands of people stationed in the building, but also the Arlington Police and Fire Departments, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, HAZMAT teams and rescue squads from jurisdictions across the Metro area.

Arlington’s first responders lead the efforts and say training could be the difference between life and death in the event of another terrorist attack.

“When things get really tense and unusual, you fall back on what you’ve been trained,” said Capt. Scott McKay, a 23-year veteran of the Arlington County Fire Department.

LAST WEEK’S EXERCISE marked a departure from previous drills. “I can measure real improvements in this exercise,” said Jim Schwartz, head of Arlington's Emergency Services team.

In the first two drills, officials focused on the basics—establishing a command structure and making sure responders from each organization knew their role. This time, Schwartz said he looked for a finer level of detail, right down to the way medical teams lined up victims for treatment.

Mistakes were made, Schwartz said. On several occasions, firefighters helped each other carry victims to the treatment area. Teamwork is usually a good thing, but when dealing with mass casualties, Schwartz said each firefighter has to carry a victim on his own, to rescue as many victims as possible.

OFFICIALS STRIVE to make training exercises as real as possible. Red Cross volunteers acted as victims might have responded to exposure to nerve gas.

Kane’s cries for help added another element for medical teams to deal with. “My job was to distract them from the real injuries,” she explained. In a real disaster, hysterical victims can disrupt rescue efforts, so first responders need to know how to handle them.

That’s where Sherry Showalter comes in. A licensed clinical social worker, Showalter leads the Disaster Mental Health team for the Arlington Red Cross. Her team participated in the simulation to help emergency personnel learn to deal with panicked victims.

But there was another reason for Showalter’s presence. “After today, we’ll probably see people with triggers of post traumatic stress syndrome,” she said.

The drill was so realistic, it could cause flashbacks for those who went through the Sept. 11 attack. Showalter herself was at ground zero every night for three weeks following the attack. “For me, personally and professionally, I know my life will never be the same,” she said. “I will never look at the Pentagon without thinking I’m standing on sacred ground.”

“Coming here will always be different,” said Schwartz. “But we’re not in a place where we can put our heads in the sand.”