Professionals Fight Fire, Terror

Professionals Fight Fire, Terror

Just after 9 a.m., the call came in.

"Location is 6605 Springfield Center Drive. Freight train accident, fire and smoke everywhere."

Within minutes, fire trucks, medical vehicles and even a bomb squad armored truck rolled onto the scene. The authorities were out in force, with units sent from Alexandria; Arlington, Prince George's and Montgomery counties; Glen Echo, Md.; and Fairfax.

All of this was a training exercise for the real thing. "This is a learning process, a learning event." said Dan Schmidt, spokesperson for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue.

Schmidt was one of hundreds of fire personnel present at this year's simulated train wreck, "Common Corridor 2003," hosted by the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

"One thing we're going to practice is Incident Command: having multiple districts able to come together and use the same terms and procedures to handle a situation." said Schmidt, before the exercise.

"With so many units, it's organized chaos," said Officer Raul Castillo of Fairfax, as the fire trucks rolled in. "Everybody knows what needs to be done. They just need to be able to organize. It's like putting a puzzle together."

With six localities’ worth of officers, combined with Metro and WMATA authorities and ATF K-9 personnel, the necessity for communication and solidarity was clear.

"The various districts' radio systems used to be incompatible," said Schmidt. "Just last week, Prince William County switched over to the 800 mg.Hz. That's the standard now. Mutual aid and intercompatibility, that's the key."

Synchronizing radios was not the only challenge facing the rescue teams. They had to enter bi-level rail cars, some of which were treated as if they were smoke-filled or on fire, and extract victims (played by volunteer actors) with various injuries.

"This exercise allows jurisdictions ... to work with our equipment," said Mark Roeber of VRE. "Most of these people have never been on a wrecked train or extracted a victim from one."

VRE has never had a major incident in its 11 years of existence. In the wake of 9/11, trains were one of the modes of public transportation identified as being highly vulnerable to terrorist action. This problem was addressed in the exercise through the inclusion of the Fairfax Bomb Squad and the ATF K-9 unit.

"There was a first device that went off to start the fire," said ATF officer Sheila Fry. "Now the simulation dictates that a call has come in that there's a second device on the train — a bomb threat, essentially."

Fry then hurried off with her bomb-sniffing dog, Andy.

"If a second device is detected, we'll pull back, and the bomb squad will come in to take it out," she said.

By the time the bomb detectors were sent in, the victims had already been extracted. Firefighters practiced everything from leading out dazed and walking wounded, treating burns and smoke inhalation, and carrying people out on gurneys to assembling makeshift first-aid gear when none was readily available for victims.

"If the equipment isn't available, they improvise," said Castillo. "Like a ladder being used as a gurney."

From an official standpoint, the operation was a success. How efficient was the exercise from the perspective of the victims? Earl Long, a first-time volunteer and a first-aid instructor for the Civil Air Patrol, was entirely satisfied. "They picked me up, put me on the litter, and took me right out," he said.

"I felt it took a little longer than it should've," said Bernard Tate, a volunteer returning for his second year at the event. "A fireman took us the wrong way past a car that was supposed to be smoking and on fire."

Tate, who takes the VRE every day to and from work, was satisfied with the event. "Exercise is the time to make mistakes," he said.