Preparing for the Worst

Preparing for the Worst

Annual drill tests emergency preparedness for police, fire, Pentagon and medical personnel.

Dressed in Hazmat suits, police outside the hospital directed the patients, some nursing deep gouges in their limbs, to a nurse holding a Geiger counter. As she scanned them, she tried to calm them. “Hello sir,” she said. “I’m checking you for radiation.”

As they moved from scans to showers to medical checkups, some patients were calm, some silent. Others collapsed on the pavement, or screamed in pain, “Oh! My eye! Oh my God!”

As they examined the patients, doctors asked questions about their problems. “What kind of injury do you have? Can you walk OK? Did you lose consciousness?” Eventually they learned what may have caused the problems: a dirty bomb and a suicide bomber, exploding in the parking lot outside the Pentagon.

The patients were Red Cross volunteers, and they, police officers and staff at the Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington on Wednesday morning, May 19, were participants in Operation Gallant Fox 2, the third exercise in three years testing emergency preparedness among the county’s first responders, Pentagon personnel and medical personnel.

Outside the Pentagon, 20 other Red Cross volunteers also wore stage makeup wounds, testing the abilities of first responders to determine who could be saved. Inside the Pentagon, military staff moved from one suite of offices to a different wing of the building, setting up temporary headquarters.

Gallant Fox 2 was months in the planning before role-playing began last week, with officials from the county’s Fire and Police departments joining officers from the Pentagon’s Force Protection department, Virginia State Police and administrators from the hospital and the Arlington chapter of the Red Cross.

<b>IT FELL TO</b> Chief James Daugherty to make their day as hard as possible. Daugherty, the Arlington Fire Department’s chief training officer, was one of the designers of the exercise, and he wanted to ensure that Gallant Fox 2 tested the shortfalls exposed by Gallant Fox 1 last spring.

That exercise, based on the release of a cloud of nerve gas at the Pentagon, showed room to improve communications between county fire responders and Pentagon police and medical personnel.

But both Gallant Fox exercises and Operation Misty Court, in May 2002, have also shown the strengths of local emergency preparedness, said Daugherty.

“Before 9-11, we had quite a few relationships with different [departments] in the area. This just reinforces those.”

<b>COMMUNICATIONS COULD GET</b> an immediate boost after Gallant Fox 2, said Steve Holl, Arlington Police Department deputy chief. The exercise examined what role could be played by the Arlington Alert system, a county e-mail and text message emergency alert system. “It can be of assistance in evacuation, or in shelter-in-place,” said Holl.

In addition, he said, the county is looking at two new systems that could increase the reach of emergency communications with regular Arlingtonians. Mass calling, a computerized calling system that can dial up to 5,000 phone numbers at one time, could play a pre-recorded emergency notification, letting people know what’s happening and what they should do. “We would be looking at using a system like that,” Holl said. Arlington is exploring the system with other jurisdictions in the region.

The county is also considering a local program using a low-powered AM radio broadcast, Holl said. “When you’re going to Dulles, it says tune to 1610 for parking information. This is one of those systems.”

Messages on the Arlington Alert system, on other broadcasts and on signs around the county “could say tune to 1700 for the latest information,” said Holl. “We’re hoping to get a test transmitter, to put in different locations around the county.”

<b>AT THE HOSPITAL,</b> the exercise highlighted other lessons of Sept. 11. “We realized firsthand the importance of the hospital being prepared,” said Dr. John Sverha, assistant director of the emergency department. “On Sept. 11, people presented to the nearest hospital without waiting for EMS to bring them in.”

To that end, Red Cross volunteers serving as Gallant Fox 2’s patients appeared outside the hospital’s emergency room doors. Arlington police officers directed them to a triage unit set up outside a newly constructed wing, not yet open to the public.

Volunteers had little idea what they would be doing before Wednesday — they just showed up early in the morning to find out how sick they would be, said Sally Cooney, chief volunteers and services officer.

At the same time, Red Cross staff offered site support to the fire and police personnel at the Pentagon, as in real incidents. At Red Cross offices, other staffers checked how many volunteers would be available to work in a real emergency.

It was one of the busiest days of the year in the real emergency room, Sverha said. As on Sept. 11, he said, if Gallant Fox 2 were a real incident, “we would have needed to discharge patients to create bed space.”