FLORENCE – Ammonia leaking out of a rail tanker.
Several rail cars derail leaking sulfuric acid.
A train derails with several tankers loaded with chlorine.
All of these accidents happen within an hour of each other. Coincidence – or a coordinated terrorist attack?
That was the situation facing emergency managers, city managers, police and fire departments at a Homeland Security exercise held Tuesday at the Florence Town Hall. Although none of these incidents actually happened, the scenario was arranged to test the ability of emergency managers, governments and first responders to work together in an actual emergency. The governments of Pinal County, Florence, Casa Grande, Eloy, Gila River Indian Community and the State of Arizona were on hand to test their reactions to such an attack.
"We had a phenomenal turnout," Pinal County Emergency Management Director Lou Miranda said following the six-hour exercise. "With more than 70 people in attendance, we had great representation from multiple agencies and jurisdictions."
The exercise centered around a local environmental militia group whose members were unhappy about a zoning issue to be decided by the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Participants were given a timeline of incidents over a three-day period. The exercise tested everyone from local law enforcement to air quality and health officials in response to multiple attacks across western and central Pinal County.
"The object of this exercise is to bring forth various jurisdictions and agencies in an effort to handle a situation of this magnitude," Miranda said. "Periodically testing our capabilities is how emergency responders ensure that we work cooperatively together to manage an emergency situation that would require activation of an Emergency Operations Center."
Miranda said while inter-agency cooperation was one of the major goals of this exercise, the lessons learned regarding each agency's capabilities and their own operations was a by-product of the event.
"To understand what your agency can do in a time like this is very, very important," Miranda said. "Can you rely on your police and fire department to work together? Does your public works department know how to handle several road closures at once? This exercise just reinforces the simple fact that it takes not just one or two departments to handle an emergency. It takes everyone working together to be able to save lives and property."
Pinal County Emergency Management is planning a similar exercise in 2011.
"We will evaluate the response to this exercise and then plan for a larger scale functional exercise," Miranda said. "I would say this exercise is already a success due to the communication and collaboration that took place between each of the agencies involved. It all comes down to building relationships and learning how to effectively work with one another."