By Darrell Todd Maurina
In the event of a major hazardous materials disaster, would local police, fire and medical officials be able to work together?
Officials met in a series of three meetings this week, Monday through Wednesday, to set up a tabletop exercise to test this question.
Organized as the Curry County Local Emergency Planning Committee, agency representatives meet monthly and are working toward a major simulated hazardous disaster exercise in 2005.
Curry County Emergency Management Director Ken De Los Santos said a tabletop planning exercise in February will test how well the agencies would respond.
Capt. Leon Morris of the Clovis Police Department said local agencies, even those in smaller communities, need to be ready to handle hazardous materials incidents until larger departments arrive with specialized personnel.
“This one will be for a specific type of disaster that could occur here; we don’t focus on just one scenario,” said De Los Santos. “When a disaster does occur, we need to have people working with each other.”
“By law, the state police handle hazmat situations, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to take charge of an incident,” Morris said. “If I’m state police and I show up and see you’re in charge and doing a good job, I’m not going to take charge on the scene. I’m going to say, ‘I’m here, let me know if you need anything.’”
Morris said part of the issue can be that state police officers with specialized hazardous materials training may be an hour or more away, and in other cases, the key problem may be a fire or other danger that local agencies are better equipped to handle than state law enforcement.
Morris said past tabletop exercises have gone well, but he encouraged departments to send junior personnel, not just experienced personnel, for the next exercise so they can be trained in disaster response.
“Don’t send me a seasoned lieutenant, send me the guy who’s actually going to be on duty,” Morris said. “The first people on the scene are going to make all the difference.”
Bruce Ford from the Cannon Air Force Base Fire Department agreed that planning for joint exercises should be as realistic as possible and train agencies to work together with a unified purpose.
“When we had our (last) tabletop exercise, we had a little bit of unreality: Everybody was afraid to step on each other’s toes,” Ford said. “I know if we had a real incident, we all would be working as much as we could.”
“Let’s face it, we all like blood and guts; that’s why we all drive by an accident three or four times to get a good look,” Morris said. “If we really had one of these situations, we all would be going out there, on duty, off duty, it wouldn’t make any difference.”