On Saturday, at about 8:30 a.m., a civilian worker at the Fairfax County jail was delivering mail to an inmate when an envelope ripped open, spreading a suspicious powder in the air. And then, the drill was on.
Although the powder incident was merely a simulation, it set off a mock evacuation at the jail to determine whether the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office is adequately prepared for a real-live evacuation. With 157 volunteers playing the part of inmates — the jail's 1,200 actual inmates were locked down in their cells during the drill — sheriff's deputies as well as other public safety employees in the county practiced evacuating and decontaminating inmates as well as guards from the jail.
The drill was intended to be as life-like as possible, said David Lubas, a Sheriff's deputy who organized the event.
"The idea was that we would basically test plans we had in place," he said.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax scare that fall, law enforcement agencies from around the Washington region have staged dozens of similar drills. The June 5 drill, however, was the first one to be staged at the Fairfax County jail, which is located in the City of Fairfax.
ONCE THE envelope was opened, deputies locked down the jail as nearby inmates and deputies jumped into the shower fully clothed to scrub off the mysterious powder. Fire fighters rushed to the scene and set up a decontamination unit inside the jail. Then, just to be safe, the Sheriff's Office ordered a complete evacuation of the jail. To do that, deputies had to shackle all the jail's inmates, walk them through the Fire Department's decontaminating misters and march them under heavy guard out of the jail to an underground parking garage, where they would be held until the jail was deemed safe again.
The 157 volunteers, most of whom came from civic associations or the ranks of reserve deputies, were sent through the misters to simulate the 1,200 inmates and then marched through the damp, chilly morning to the garage.
Lubas said one of the goals was to see how Sheriff's deputies would cooperate with the representatives from other agencies in the event of an emergency. As a result, firefighters, police officers from all surrounding jurisdictions and a representative from the FBI were on hand.
According to Lubas, everything went smoothly.
"There's been no problem, no issues, no concerns. It's just been one unified effort," he said.
Several of the volunteers also said the drill was proceeding smoothly.
"I think it's going pretty well," said Marty Wren, a reserve deputy from Centreville, who was playing the role of an inmate. Wren, however, noted that the drill hadn't gone as quickly as she expected.
"We were in upstairs lock-in for about two hours," she said.
To many of the volunteers, the drill was a chance to experience first-hand the life of an inmate, if only for a few hours.
Art Culbertson, a volunteer from Fauquier County, said the feeling was "confined, limited, restricted."
"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I'd rather be on the outside than on the inside."