Drill proves city ready for emergencies

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 21, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

A newly acquired $100,000 computerized chemical analyzer, purchased by the City of Suffolk through a fire grant, proved its worth Friday when it was used to test an unknown chemical substance found at the Suffolk Health Department.

The time was 9:20 a.m. when the health department building on North Main Street was evacuated. Five minutes later, police, fire and rescue vehicles arrived in droves as public safety personnel began preparing for an all out emergency involving &uot;unknown chemical substances.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

Personnel at the health department were quickly divided into two groups; those contaminated and those uncontaminated, and the building was evacuated. At least one pregnant woman and several people with disabilities were taken into consideration for special needs.

Electric power and phone service to the health department were out, and the only means of communication were through cell phones and two-way radios. All the while, public safety personnel were scurrying throughout the building seeking their quest; the biological agent and a &uot;ticking&uot; sound.

Onlookers across the street at Wal-Mart shopping center were all craning their necks, trying to determine what was going on. Traffic crawled as drivers slowed to watch the spectacle unfolding before them.

All this drama played out as the Suffolk Health Department, police, fire and rescue personnel and employees from Obici Hospital took part in a mock biological attack.

Dr. Lawrence W. Gernon, director of Western Tidewater Health Department, initiated the drill, and said it was all just to test the efficiency and readiness of public health officials and Suffolk’s public safety personnel.

&uot;This is first drill with the health department in the state of Virginia with the facility not only the victim, but also as a main player in the staged attack,&uot; said Gernon. &uot;Dispatchers for 911, police fire and rescue, and (Obici) hospital personnel all responded immediately believing that it was a real incident.&uot;

Gernon said the health department staff had been advised some time back that a drill would occur, however, they did not know the day or hour, or the type of emergency they’d face.

&uot;The staff, in general, was nervous and curious about what to expect, however, they responded immediately and efficiently,&uot; he said. &uot;We had an accountability of &uot;customers&uot; who had been planted to act in the scenario. The staff was also accountable in the enactment of the incident.&uot;

Gernon said he would grade an &uot;A&uot; to the staff of the health department, Obici personnel, and Suffolk’s police and fire staff and members of the Nansemond-Suffolk Rescue Squad.

&uot;This was an opportunity for my staff to work with public safety personnel and to get an understanding of working within the incident command system,&uot; he said. &uot;It is most interesting that the new machine, the computerized chemical analyzer, detected the chemical agent I had mixed from mosquito repellent and baking powder. The machine proved that it was worth the city’s investment. It is state of the art equipment and if Suffolk were to come under some type of true exposure… there is some level of satisfaction in knowing that this type of high tech equipment is available right here and we are prepared.&uot;

The scenario set by Gernon involved an unknown substance that was placed under the desk of three employees. There were also two &uot;contaminated&uot; letters, one in a medical chart and another on the desk of the medical records staff.

&uot;I put the substance under the desks and then set an alarm clock to ring to draw attention to the substance,&uot; he said. &uot;The response at that point was to evacuate the building and call 911.&uot;

Upon their arrival at the health department, the Suffolk Fire Department cordoned off the area into three zones, hot, warm and cold. Health department employees were assumed to have been exposed to this unknown agent, therefore contaminated.

&uot;Essentially the health employees were &uot;decontaminated’ by fire department personnel, and two employees were transported by the Nansemond-Suffolk Rescue Squad to Obici for evaluation,&uot; said Gernon. &uot;The people thought to be &uot;exposed’ were taken outside and hosed by fire personnel.&uot;

Gernon had set the rules for the incident, and at his direction the environmental health staff, housed in a separate building, was not contaminated. They assisted the fire department in setting up an incident command center.

That command center was headed by Suffolk Fire Department’s Battalion Chief Tom Nichols. The rest of the command center was staffed by Captain Jim Judkins, Suffolk’s Emergency Management Coordinator; Randy Vick, the safety officer for Obici Hospital; and Suffolk Police Major Richard H. Hurd. Dr. Reuben Varghese from Three Rivers Health District also assisted. They are all members of the Suffolk Bio-Terrorism Task Force.

According to Gernon, the most interesting aspect of drill was learning that the chemical analyzer truly works.

&uot;This thing is so accurate that it will even identify the brand name of coffee creamers,&uot; said Capt. Judkins. &uot;Think back to the time when Americans were being frightened by powdered sugar and other white powders thought to be anthrax. At one time, the labs were so overworked it took 30 days or more to get results. With this piece of equipment, we can identify just about any chemical or biological agent known to man within two minutes.&uot;

The chemical analyzer will also be used to identify evidence in crime scenes, arsons, and other incidents where unknown substances may be involved. Suffolk is the only city in Hampton Roads to have its own chemical analyzer.