Best practices in a disaster

Dominican campus became a lab Saturday for teamwork among county, state and national emergency-response teams

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By BILL DWYER

First reported 8/8/2009 2:47 p.m.

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The formal assessment won't be written for a while, but by all accounts a multijurisdictional, multidisciplinary disaster-response drill Saturday morning at Dominican University went well. Even the predicted intense heat held off until the last hour of the exercise.

Officially called Operation DU Prep 2009 Full Scale Disaster Exercise, the project was designed to assess a variety of first-responder elements, including police, fire, emergency medical, hazardous material handling, special tactics, bomb location and disposal, local emergency dispatching and interagency communications. It also assessed Dominican's University's ability to communicate effectively with the public and the media.

The exercise was conducted under the auspices of the Cook County Urban Area Security Initiative and under the supervision of the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program.

"This is the first time, to my knowledge, that Cook County and other agencies have banded together to do this type of exercise," said Dan Coughlin, executive director of the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council, which helped get the $249,000 in funding for the exercise.

The participants

The two top officials involved with the exercise, River Forest Fire Chief Jim Eggert and Chief of Police Frank Limon, expressed satisfaction at the outcome.

"I learned a lot Saturday," said Limon, who was the exercise's senior controller. Eggert, who was its exercise director, stressed that the exercise was designed to assess processes and procedures, not personnel.

"We did not evaluate any individuals. We evaluated the entire operation," Eggert said. "They evaluate us on our strengths and weaknesses."

The strengths, according to Eggert, outnumbered the weaknesses, and the weaknesses are already being addressed. "We have improvements to make, and we're going to make them," he said.

Both Eggert and Limon are strong advocates of improved regional cooperation and interoperability among multiple police and fire departments. Saturday's exercise was just that, with 15 municipalities participating, along with Cook County law enforcement teams, disaster response and public health workers, state police and emergency management crews, and federal disaster management officials.

The 250 total participants included several dozen U.S. Navy personnel bused in from the Great Lakes Training Command schools. Several dozen pieces of equipment sat at a staging area at Trinity High School waiting to be called in, with an equal number of police squad cars present.

Everyone who posed as a victim was a volunteer. There were about 75 volunteers, most of whom were Dominican students and staff members. Volunteers wore makeup to replicate injuries which were detailed on the back of a badge each wore for the drill.

The challenges

For the drill, officials didn't focus on the fictional attacker's motivations, limiting their response to results of the attack. Those actions started suddenly and escalated quickly. At 9:14 a.m. came a radio dispatch of a chemical release at Parmer Hall that sickened numerous students. That dispatch triggered an emergency medical and hazardous materials alert. More than 30 people were injured to varying degrees by the release of three chemicals: pepper spray, ammonia and chlorine.

As firefighters and paramedics dealt with the injured at Parmer Hall and searched the building, multiple calls came at 9:54 a.m. about shots fired inside Crown Library. Those calls brought in police special response teams from Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest and other towns, along with additional medical personnel. A unified command center was set up in two well-equipped county vans on Division at Forest. Access to the university was closed off.

At 10:16 a.m., as police brought the shooting victims and others out of the library under tight security, intelligence developed that there were bombs in both the library and a car in the west parking lot. With that notice, the Cook County bomb squad was called in and the areas around the library and parking lot were evacuated.

To further stress responders, at 10:33 a.m., dispatch reported that 10 or 12 students were running through the forest preserve across Thatcher Avenue, possibly being chased by a man carrying two backpacks. Maywood police were called to set up a perimeter, and special mounted police were called in from Melrose Park for a search and rescue in the woods.

The robot

Meanwhile, River Forest Village President John Rigas, trustees Jim Winikates, Mike Gibbs and Catherine Adduci, and Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez were treated to an up-close view of the county's new remote-controlled bomb-disposal robot in action. Connected to the command van by a long fiber-optic cable, the robot investigated the suspect car and sent pictures back to the officers.

For over an hour, bomb squad technicians practiced maneuvering the robot up a street and over the parking lot to the car, first to confirm that a bomb was present, then, on a return trip, to deliver a water-and-explosive device designed to interrupt the bomb's electronics. The robot gets briefly tangled up, but just before noon, clears the bomb threat in the car.

As the temperatures soar toward the 90s, the next-to-last exercise is completed, and the majority of participants headed off to air conditioning and a well-earned lunch. By 1 p.m., 11 people have been rescued from Thatcher Woods, Division Street is reopened, and the exercise winds down.

The teamwork

Eggert said the realities of getting so many people working together smoothly and effectively requires the sort of practice undertaken Saturday. Officials admitted the morning's events compressed a potentially 24-hour or longer scenario into about four hours. The goal, they said, was not so much realism but to learn what was done well and what needs to be done better in such situations.

In the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, much has been made about improving coordination among jurisdictions and police and fire departments.

Dominican University spokeswoman Jessica MacKinnon said the experience proved literally valuable enough to cut short a family reunion in Ohio. "It was well worth coming home early from vacation," she said. After months of planning and preparation, MacKinnon was also relieved to see the project concluded.

"From a communications standpoint, I think it went very well," said Henry Gralak, executive director of the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center. Like Eggert and Limon, he said interoperability is essential to such operations.

The support

The presence of the village's elected officials was both noted and appreciated by Eggert and others. "They were there and they were interested," Eggert said.

Captivated, in fact.

"It was really fascinating to see how the role playing was taken so seriously," Rigas said. "The amount of people involved was phenomenal." He compared the value of such first-responder training to flight-simulation training that pilots go through on a routine basis, preparing them to deal with events "they may or may not see in their lifetime."

Eggert praised the village board's recent decision to get a new automated phone and e-mail notification system, Connect-Cty. The program is marketed by Blackboard Connect, which provides high-volume notification systems for K-12 and higher education institutions and municipal governments.

"I think it's an excellent tool to have," Eggert said. "A way to communicate important information."

Eggert said a final report on the exercise is expected within two months. Coughlin, of the Cook County Judicial Advisory Council, said the subsequent evaluation and report will prove invaluable, both for first responders and for area universities. "The most important pieces will be what comes out of this," he said. "This will be shared, not just with other agencies, but with other universities."

Saturday's experience will also pay dividends locally in terms of the village's response to future emergencies, Eggert said.

"This will only improve all the other disaster planning we do here."

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