Getting drilled on Vermont's cross-border disaster readiness
It's 7:40 a.m. A sign posted by the Department of Homeland Security greets visitors to the Franklin County Airport in Highgate, a modest airstrip not far from the Canadian border. "Welcome to Operation Double Impact," the sign reads. "No loaded weapons beyond this point." At the entrance to the tarmac, I identify myself to a state trooper, whose holstered 9mm handgun has a blue ribbon on its handle, which means there's no ammo clip. Operation Double Impact is only a drill, but in the heat of the moment, professionals will react according to their training, and organizers don't want anyone to get hurt.
The sky is threatening rain as I walk through an impressive fleet of emergency rigs -- police cruisers, ambulances, fire engines, bomb-squad trucks, HAZMAT trailers and the nerve center, a mobile-command RV. For the next eight hours, this will probably be the safest place in Vermont, though it will simulate the most deadly.
I let myself in the back door of the airplane hangar, where a bald, stocky U.S. Customs agent in a flight suit is tinkering with a large, plastic suitcase. It holds a high-tech video monitor showing a live aerial view of the airport.
"Microwave digital-video downlink," says the agent, through a mouthful of donut. "We can track bad guys from 30 to 70 miles away . . . Can't even hear the plane, can you?" The camera is mounted on a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft circling 7300 feet overhead, he adds. Suddenly, the camera zooms in on the hangar we're in. This will allow experts at the Office of Emer-gency Management in Waterbury to watch everything that happens in real time.
The video gizmo is a cool toy, but "Operation Double Impact" isn't a game -- it's the first-ever joint U.S./Canadian disaster-preparedness drill, organized by emergency-management officials from both countries. The purpose, organizers say, is to put emergency responders through the paces of a cross-border terrorist attack. Drills like this one help emergency planners spot weak links in the command chain, such as information bottlenecks, deficiencies in resources or training, equipment malfunctions or communications snafus. Disaster experts can run tabletop exercises over and over, but until they put "boots on the ground," there's no way to predict what will actually go wrong -- as the victims of Hurricane Katrina learned the hard way.
About 15 of us have been provided a front-row seat to watch the action. The observers include members of the Vermont National Guard, police commanders from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, a U.S. attorney from Concord, a terrorism expert from Sûrete du Quebec (Canada's provincial police), and the media. We're on the tarmac right beside the rescuers -- albeit behind a safety cordon -- to see how they do.
I confess, this stuff gives me a rush. In the 1990s, I worked as a park ranger and emergency medical technician in Austin, Texas, and volunteered with the Travis County K-9 Search and Rescue team. Rescue work is one of the few public-service jobs that regularly gets your adrenaline running and challenges you physically and mentally, but doesn't get you shot at -- usually. Since I no longer have opportunities to rappel down cliffs or jump from moving helicopters, this is the next best thing.
Today's drill is scheduled to begin by 8:30. But according to Lieutenant Jim Colgan of the Vermont State Police, exercise director on the American side, it's already begun. Six days ago, law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border began receiving "injects," or simulated intelligence reports, about a possible terrorist threat to the Port of Montreal, some of them red herrings. Two days ago, the Department of Homeland Security raised its (simulated) threat alert to "Level Orange." By now, terrorists have already hijacked two tanker trucks in Quebec containing an unknown poisonous material. Moments from now, one will be detonated in St. Armand; the other, in downtown Swanton.
I'm disappointed to learn that although the Canadian authorities are running a simultaneous drill in St. Armand, no real border crossings will take place. To me, that seems to diminish the reality factor. Typically, international borders slam shut after a real terrorist attack. But for both logistical and safety reasons, much of the "action" must be simulated.
The 233 participants from more than 13 federal, state and local agencies know it's not the real thing. Still, there's a rule that all radio transmissions begin with the phrase "This is an exercise." It prevents anyone who's eavesdropping on an emergency radio frequency from having a "War of the Worlds" moment and inciting a public panic. That's important because, for the next eight hours, this acre or so of tarmac will be the Swanton Village Square. Or what's left of it.
8:40 a.m. A green-and-white military helicopter lifts off from the runway. Minutes later, a loud "boom" is heard from a silver tanker parked a few hundred yards down the runway, followed by a puff of yellow smoke. Engines from the Swanton Fire Department and the Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team are already assembled in front of us. A sign says "York Street."
"This is an exercise," squawks a firefighter's radio. "Be advised, we have a number of civilians on the scene."
Through binoculars, I can make out about 30 "victims" -- volunteers from the Vermont State Guard and the Agency of Transportation -- scattered around the tanker. Some of their faces are painted red, others blue. Many are lying on the ground; some stagger aimlessly. All have laminated badges around their necks that identify them as victims and list their vital signs and medical conditions such as difficulty breathing, burning eyes and peeling skin. Those I met earlier had also been instructed how to behave. These conditions aren't just for show during the drill. Those who "survive" the day will be transported to Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans to test the hospital's ability to handle a terrorist attack.
Eight Swanton firefighters begin assembling a decontamination tent and portable showers while others don white "Level A" protective suits. These bulky, head-to-toe suits protect rescuers from whatever hazardous substances they might encounter -- in this case, chlorine gas. The suits provide good protection but limited comfort. On a 68-degree day, the temperature inside can heat up to 98 degrees or more. Even on this chilly morning, I can hear how quickly one firefighter is breathing through his respirator.
"People get real claustrophobic in there," notes Specialist Tracy Provost, an observer with the Vermont National Guard. "When you're zipped up in one of those things, you immediately lose 30 IQ points."
Periodically, the firefighters do what Provost refers to as "the chicken dance." The protective gear includes a motion sensor that detects whenever the rescuer stops moving for too long. If someone runs out of oxygen or is incapacitated, the sensor emits a series of chirps, then whistles. To prevent the alarms from going off, the firefighters will occasionally flap their arms like a chicken.
9:48 a.m. Ambulances and more fire trucks arrive on the scene, but still no one has approached the tanker or tended to the wounded. About 10 "victims" are now walking toward the firefighters shouting, "Somebody help us! People are hurt!" and "My eyes are burning!" The firefighters keep them at bay with fire hoses, though there's no running water. It's unclear whether the hoses would be on if this were a real event. Moments later, someone gets on a loudspeaker and reassures the victims that help is coming.
A casual observer might assume the rescue is taking interminably long, but it's one of the harsh realities of a mass-casualty disaster: Rescuers must ensure their own safety before helping others. Rushing in heedlessly to save women and children sounds heroic, but a rescuer who gets contaminated or injured only becomes a burden to others.
Soon, the decon tent is up and running, and the first two ambulatory patients are led into the showers, hosed off and brought to a triage area. Beside the HAZMAT trailer, a portable weather gauge spins wildly. Rescue crews must stay upwind and uphill of the toxic cloud. "If that wind shifts," notes an observer from the New Hampshire State Police, "these guys are all screwed." Meanwhile, state police on ATVs scout the scene's perimeter. Apparently, it's not known whether the terrorists are still at large.
All the while, data collectors in green safety vests poke their noses into every aspect of this drill, recording times, scribbling notes, and evaluating how the rescue is going. When the exercise is over, they will provide a quick review, or "hot wash." Later, the entire exercise will be evaluated and deconstructed for flaws. Unfortunately, the data collectors won't share their initial observations with me.
10:11 a.m. There's still no public-information officer on scene. I flag down Tim Girard of the Swanton Fire Department, whose orange vest reads "Public Safety Officer." Technically, he's not in charge of the rescue -- that's the Incident Commander's job -- but if Girard sees anything that poses an undo risk to his rescuers, he can pull the plug on the entire operation.
Girard stops to talk to his staging officer, Lieutenant Randy Dame of the Swanton Fire Department. Dame's job is to make sure everyone has drinking water, blankets and other necessary resources.
"We have 14 confirmed casualties, plus one firefighter going to triage," Girard tells Dame. "How are you doing?"
"I ran out of resources an hour ago," Dame admits. "I'd call it in . . . if I could get in a word edgewise."
Dame is referring to his radio, which is hissing with chatter from other rescue personnel. During a brief lull, Dame calls in a request for backup units from Franklin and Georgia Center. When things quiet down, I ask him how the exercise is going.
"It's a real eye-opener," he says.
10:45 a.m. Governor Jim Douglas and Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie arrive. After a short briefing from the exercise director, they come out to speak to a circle of reporters. Had this been an actual emergency, Douglas says, he would be in the Office of Emergency Management in Waterbury.
"It's a very coordinated response by agencies at the local, state and federal levels," Douglas says. "So far, it seems to me that everyone is working together well. But we'll have to wait for the evaluation to see if there are any changes that need to be made in our incident-command structure."
The reporters are all very polite, and wait patiently to ask questions. It's one element of unreality in this "real-life" scenario: Had this been an actual disaster, the public's appetite for information would be insatiable, and this press conference would look more like a Wall Street trading pit, with everyone shouting at once.
11:14 a.m. Two more
ambulances arrive, this time from the Missisquoi Valley Rescue. The medics start loading patients into the back of their rig. Each patient has a triage tag tied to one leg -- green for low priority, yellow for medium, red for rush patients. None has a black tag. Those are for the dead, which can be recovered later.
Through binoculars, I can see more victims on the scene, but rescuers in white suits are now evacuating them on yellow wagons. One of the rescuers veers toward the spectator area. Apparently, he can't see through the condensation on his facemask and nearly trips over the safety cordon. He starts shouting incoherently. None of us can tell whether his disorientation is real or part of the drill. Eventually, he finds his way to the decon tent.
12:05 p.m. The rescuers break for lunch, a luxury they wouldn't have in a real disaster. I head back to the staging area a quarter-mile away, where volunteers from the Northern Vermont chapter of the Red Cross have set up a tent and canteen. In Operation Double Impact, the Red Cross is doing exactly what it would in a real disaster: providing rescuers and victims with food and beverages; by day's end, they will have served more than 650 meals.
I encounter four "patients" eating snacks. Among them is Ross Moir of Glover. He has a yellow triage tag on his calf, which means he'll have to wait before being taken to the hospital. I read his list of symptoms: blurred vision, burning eyes, redness in his face. His left arm is also bandaged. Moir says he was operating a chainsaw when the tanker exploded and nearly cut his arm off. That the triage medics tagged him for a delayed transport reveals a lot about the severity of the other wounded. In this disaster, a severed hand isn't considered life-threatening.
Another "patient" is Ron Baker of Barre Town, who has only superficial injuries. Baker is role-playing a French speaker who can't understand English. When police and firefighters ordered him not to approach until he was decontaminated, Baker pretended not to understand. As a result, a police officer drew his gun, unsure whether Baker was a victim or a terrorist.
Nearby, Officer Robert Lucas of the Vermont State Police opens the back door of his police car to take his dog Freesia for a walk. The 3-year-old black Labrador is trained to sniff out 19,000 different explosives. Lucas tells me the Vermont Bomb Squad was activated to "disrupt" an unexploded bomb on the scene. They used one of their new robots to do the job. I ask if Freesia played a part.
"No," he says. "She sort of had a back-seat role today."
1:20 p.m. By now, much of the activity on the tarmac looks routine -- cleaning up, stowing spent oxygen tanks, disposing of contaminated suits. As a steady rain starts to fall, I call it quits. It'll be days, perhaps weeks, before the final report on Operation Double Impact is issued. From an observer's standpoint, it's hard to tell how the day went, especially since large parts of it took place behind closed doors.
For all I know, Vermont's emergency responders did everything by the book. But it's almost impossible to reproduce a real disaster scene, with all its disturbing sights, sounds and smells. There was never a point today when the rescuers experienced the real fear of being overcome by a toxic cloud, or felt the gut-wrenching pain of keeping a chemically burned neighbor at bay with a fire hose. And none was distracted by the uncertainty of whether a spouse or child had survived the blast. These kinds of drills are of incalculable value, but some human emotions simply cannot be simulated.