In many ways, the scenario resembled the two earlier Department of Justice Weapons of Mass Destruction tabletop drills held in Syracuse. Prior to the May 19 exercise date, e-mail messages containing advisories were sent to more than 25 agencies in the community (see sample message on this page).
With this and other e-mail “exercise inputs,” more than 25 agencies in the greater Syracuse area began meeting with their executive leadership teams to map out their alert and response procedures. The County Executive’s staff was briefed. The County EOC was put on alert. The Red Cross and other agencies started call downs to place available staff and volunteers on alert.
For six months prior to May 19 Lt. Colonel John Murray, 174th Fighter Wing, worked with Onondaga County Emergency Management Office Director Peter Alberti to design the exercise. At approximately 9 a.m. on May 19, 2002, the F-16 took off from Hancock Field only to be fired upon by a terrorist using a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. The simulated result was the pilot’s being killed during the ejection bail-out, and the F-16 crashing in the stadium parking lot, contacting a school bus filled with high school softball players arriving at the stadium, and then sliding to a halt on the railroad at the end of the parking lot, puncturing two rail tank cars carrying liquefied Anhydrous Ammonia. Several other conditions were reported to establish the level of activity under way at area hospitals and law enforcement agencies.
Since this was a planned exercise, men and women of the 174th had pre-set the stadium parking lot with aircraft parts, rockets, a damaged school bus containing unexploded munitions, and about 50 school-aged members of the Naval Seabees who had volunteered to play as victims. The Syracuse Fire
Department, Syracuse Police, the Red Cross, and the county and city HAZMAT units had all staged apparatus for use in the response in an adjacent stadium parking lot. A call to the County 911 Center exercise phone line at 9:05 a.m. reporting the crash at the stadium was followed immediately by exercise controllers calling in a report of the missile fired at the F-16 and the landing of the deceased pilot at a local recycling transfer station. The 911 Center handled dispatch of all players – fire, police, EMS, HAZMAT, and Red Cross. Two pre-staged HAZMAT Decon trailers were pressed into action for the very first time. This was an excellent opportunity for Syracuse City and Onondaga County HAZMAT teams to work together. Specially trained, paid firefighters from the city and volunteers from the county worked side by side in A-level suits while Seabees students and many of their parents were rescued and showered in the Decon trailers before being transported to local hospitals by paid and volunteer ambulance services.
Most critical to the response was the callout of military personnel who could handle the weapons found amongst the debris from the fully-armed F-16. An On-Scene Control Group arrived from Hancock Field to assist in the response.
Their arrival took exactly one hour. During that hour, firefighters, HAZMAT teams and EMS personnel had to do their best to rescue the youth injured in the crash, paying strict attention to the wind direction and speed affecting the released Anhydrous Ammonia from the punctured rail tank cars. Police personnel were kept busy with traffic control for ingress and egress to the stadium parking lot by emergency vehicles and the possibility of evacuating the Carousel Center shopping mall less than three-fourths of a mile from the impact site. Further problems were created by the exercise controllers reporting “rubber-necking” auto accidents on Interstate 81 which passed the stadium on high ground and overpasses just to the south west.
As the incident unfolded, four local hospitals had the opportunity to drill their decontamination equipment and personnel. Victims from the stadium parking lot were transported to the hospitals where decon units had been set up in the parking lots just outside of the emergency room. Again, volunteers were escorted into the tented showers. The weather was a very cool 46 degrees making actual decon of all players ill-advised.
On-scene incident command was set up in a mobile command center provided by the North Syracuse Fire Department. Messages were relayed between the on-scene commander, the 911 Center, and the County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Military command joined in a unified command at the scene and in the EOC.
Since there had been three days of e-mail advisories from the New York State Office of Public Security and the FBI, personnel assigned to duties in the county EOC had been placed on alert prior to the crash. Once the simulated crash was reported, the EOC staff assembled quickly and the EOC was activated. In the EOC, representatives were present from the 174th Fighter Wing, county and city fire, county sheriff and city police, county EMS, the State Emergency
Management Office, the Health Department, the Planning Department, the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Red Cross, the FBI, and of course, the media. Radio, television, and newspaper media were all represented.
From the EOC, communications was established with all participating agencies. As the scenario developed, exercise control began to provide information about the ruptured rail tank cars. HAZMAT personnel responded with warnings about evacuation distances that might possibly be required. This generated messages to the County Health Department, the Local Human Needs Committee and the Red Cross regarding the possibility of setting up family reception centers or shelters outside the affected areas. At one point in the exercise, it was estimated that as many as 10,000 residents in the City of Syracuse might need to be evacuated. Officials at the Red Cross Chapter headquarters staged personnel using a call down and consulted their records for the best available shelter sites.
In the EOC, County Executive Nicholas Pirro was on hand to answer questions from the media and to participate in briefing meetings regarding the incident. Public information officers were also present from the county, the Air Force, Rural Metro (EMS private provider), and the Red Cross.
The exercise was concluded by 1:30 p.m., after all objectives related to command, control, and communications were achieved. Many of the exercise events were captured on video by photographers from the 174th, the media and in real time digital photographs taken by the Civil Air Patrol planes flying over the crash site. The Civil Air Patrol had the capability to download their digital photos to a Web site available to all players either in the EOC or at their respective headquarters during the exercise.
‘Lessons Learned’ Session
On June 25, 2002, the Onondaga County Public Safety Training Center at Onondaga Community College hosted the exercise debrief meeting. Rich Flanagan, director of the center, has for many years worked hard to bring the fire service, police, EMS, business and industry, and volunteer human services agencies together with government in critical incident management training. In Onondaga County, all branches of emergency services train together. The hallmark of this joint training is a simulator board on which life-like scenarios are played out to demonstrate how the ICS unified command system can be maximized when all responding agencies work together. The center has been the focal point of weapons of mass destruction training and emergency response to terrorism in addition to its normal schedule of police academy and fire training.
Lt. Col. John Murray began the debrief with a four-minute Power Point slide show, accompanied by Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” This gave all players a review of what had taken place, especially at the scene. For many who had participated in the EOC, this was their first exposure to the crash site scattered with aircraft debris, weaponry, student victims, and the railroad. It was also their first view of the magnitude of the response – multiple pieces of fire fighting apparatus, decon trailers, the mobile command post, A and B level suited HAZMAT personnel, military vehicles and personnel, and the Red Cross vans. Using multi-media techniques he had learned at the Disney Institute, Lt. Col. Murray had found a way in just four minutes to re-focus everyone’s attention on the incident.
One participant from each agency was asked to address three questions:
1. What worked?
2. What needs to be improved?
3. What interagency interfaces need to be worked on?
Highlights and Strengths
1. County Emergency Management: Pre-information in the form of advisories two or three days prior to the exercise.
2. Rural Metro used the exercise as in-service education for employees.
3. Syracuse Fire: Needs to expand personnel receiving pre-information messages. Excellent opportunity to test new Decon Trailers.
4. County Health Department found pre-briefing to be an excellent opportunity.
5. Hospitals: Decon worked well. Tested their own command center.
6. Veterans Administration Hospital: Color condition triggered lockdown, callout, preparation.
7. 911 Center: Learned that time doesn’t permit asking more questions of callers.
8. 174th Fighter Wing: Conducted a training day one day prior to the exercise and found it very beneficial to learn about ICS.
9. County HAZMAT Team: Very beneficial to test new Decon trailer; 10 people needed per trailer; excellent to have County and City working together.
10. Public Safety Training Center: Identified training needed.
11. Civil Air Patrol: A great lesson for student volunteers and their parents.
12. Strategic Teaching Associates (business participant): Businesses in affected area need to learn about ICS and how the EOC disseminates emergency information. Excellent opportunity.
Areas for Improvement
1. Avoid overcrowding in the county EOC.
2. Establish better ingress an egress for EMS vehicles at the scene.
3. PIO’s from all agencies need to be better coordinated, perhaps at a Joint News Center.
4. Training manuals for new Decon trailers need to be completed.
5. For a while it was utter chaos in the EOC due to the many issues related to the setup of an evacuation or family reception center.
6. Orderly flow and display of information needs improvement.
7. Staffing an issue at hospitals; not enough nurses.
8. Activation of additional EMS resources could have been faster.
9. County Fire Coordinator: Response tracking was difficult.
10. 911 Center: EOC needs to display more information on a screen and file sharing should be explored.
11. Civil Air Patrol: Will work on image content of imagery intelligence from aircraft.
12. We need to do more exercising; great teamwork amongst all agencies on the exercise.
The May 19, 2002, Onondaga County Major Accident Response Exercise involved more than 25 agencies, 300 players, and more than 1,000 estimated responders to callouts and alerts. In the last two years, this community has participated in both chemical and biological response drills conducted by the Department of Justice. The emergency response community continues to train together, drill together and, now, to exercise together. Business and industry has played its part in conducting community drills and exercises at local industrial complexes and rail facilities. The media has provided more than ample coverage of these preparedness activities. The military has joined this community partnership and continues to meet with the County Disaster Preparedness Committee. This is a community where real disasters have been limited to a damaging wind storm in 1998, a train wreck in 2001, and a callout to serve at Ground Zero after which more than 70 local emergency responders received the New York State Senate Liberty Award for their efforts. This is a community relatively unfamiliar with major losses from disasters. But this is a community dedicated to disaster preparedness, now including real time exercising with the military.
Unlike Quecreek, Pa., unlike Oklahoma City, unlike New York City, and unlike the many other communities where damage and tragedy have taken their toll, Syracuse continues to prepare with the belief, “It’s not if, but when it can happen here.”
Dr. Thomas D. Phelan is president of Strategic Teaching Associates and a board member and training director for PPBI. He is also a member of the Disaster Recovery Journal Editorial Advisory Board, the National DMORT Command, the Onondaga County Fire Advisory Board, and disaster chair of the Onondaga-Oswego chapter of the American Red Cross.