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Hazmat drill reveals lack of communication

By Sherri Ellington Communications, communications, communications. As in past hazardous materials drills, the lack of it was targeted as the major problem with handling emergencies. ’It’s the biggest issue you have,’ said Ed Westbrook of GEMA. ‘You need protocols and a joint incident command center.’ No aspects of the drill were given to anyone but an out-of-town coordinator. The main hazard ‘“ two train cars and a trailer tanker ‘crashed’ in a parking lot that no one but the drill coordinator and planner knew held tens of thousands of gallons of ‘diesel fuel’ and ‘crude oil’ ‘“ was missed by responders and seven non-local evaluators. The two who knew did not spill the beans until the drill wound down. Such a blast could have taken out Milner Milling, a church, nearby subdivisions and much of the industrial area, making a drill on the site moot. ’This drill wasn’t tabletopped. It was training and experience kicking in,’ said sheriff Brad White. ‘We didn’t know anything until it was called in.’ Some 25 minutes after the drill was called out at 9 a.m. Sept. 19, as ‘injuries’ were reported at the mill, White’s deputies were ‘evacuating’ an area from Old Milner Road, Woodall Lane, Industrial Drive, Old Highway 41, Grove Street and Barnesville Road. ’This type of incident could be huge,’ said Westbrook. ‘These evacuations could be very real.’ ’We called the railroad to stop the trains about 10 or 15 minutes before the truck and train collision was to have occurred,’ said White. ‘I’d like to think we stopped that before it happened.’ Firefighters and EMTs dealt quickly with a ‘wheat and chemical explosion’ on the top two floors of the flour mill and a pickup truck ‘fire’ in the parking lot. The truck ‘fire’ was ‘put out’ as the county’s only smoke machine was cut off. With no water under the decoys, no ‘fuel leak’ was found there. A second smoke maker to mark the overlooked setup farther away was suggested by one out-of-town observer. As a search was begun for the missing ‘pickup driver,’ firefighters donned their gear, explored Milner Milling floor by floor and found volunteer victim George Brothers on the fifth floor, ‘killed’ by the explosion there. ’We wore out a team getting him out of there,’ said fire chief Steve Andrews, who called for the county to update its analog radios to match digital ones used by the city. Andrews lost phone contact with GEMA due to a glitch in the state phone system and was using a laptop, cell phone and radio to authorize someone to call out a hazmat team. ’We learned a lot of things today but we still don’t know which event came first,’ said Andrews. ‘It was an as-is, real time response from the stations. I was calling hazmat for the conditions in the mill, not the wreck.’ Westbrook noted the switchboard glitch and said there are federal channels local public safety personnel can use on both types of radios to improve communications during a transfer to more expensive, updated radios. ’What we’re doing is to improve Lamar’s capacities when incidents occur,’ he said. ‘The only thing I can say is the responders didn’t go through decontamination and we all know that’s budgetary.’ The Harris County evaluator went a step further and said local units need additional hazmat training but, because of costs, stopped short of saying there should be a local team. He added that the EMS needs breathing apparatus on hand. ‘You did an excellent job with low manpower,’ he said. There were reports only six firefighters turned out for the drill.

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