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Ventura County

Emergency Crews to Conduct Bioterrorism Drills


To prepare for a possible bioterrorism attack, Ventura County law enforcement agencies and emergency services personnel will hold a special training exercise next month.

Firefighters, police officers and other emergency crews will take part in the drill, which officials said has been in the planning stages for months.

The one-day event will be held Nov. 5 on the grounds of the former St. John's Hospital campus, near the corner of Doris Avenue and G Street in Oxnard.

The announcement of the drill comes as police and fire departments across the county are responding to a flurry of calls from residents reporting suspicious substances feared to be deadly chemicals.

Although no such chemicals have been found, officials say they have treated each call seriously.

"With the mind-set of the world today, we have to prepare for any scenario," said Tiloi Tuitama, a hazardous materials specialist with the Oxnard Fire Department. "When people see something a little strange they are calling us. Normally, they would just walk away."

Tuitama and other members of the Oxnard hazardous materials team inspected a package of toilet paper Friday afternoon that was left inside the lobby of the Oxnard Police Department after a man said it contained a white powdery substance.

The substance turned out to be residue from paper pulp at the bottom of the package, Tuitama said.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and near Washington, the Oxnard Fire Department has responded to about three calls a day from residents reporting the presence of powdery substances either on packages or pieces of mail.

It's been the same in other cities across Ventura County.

Postal officials in Ventura said that the spate of false alarms has increased their awareness of the potential for deadly mail tampering, but has not yet led to major changes in the way mail is handled.

Tom Thomas, the officer in charge of Ventura's Santa Clara Street post office, said he held an emergency meeting Friday to brief employees about the dangers of anthrax and the warning signs to look for when handling mail.

"Everybody is taking this seriously," Thomas said. "I am stressing to everybody that they have the potential to save lives."

County Fire Department spokesman Joe Luna said calls from nervous residents reporting suspicious packages or odors have also been on the rise in recent weeks.

Luna said that next month's drill will allow county law enforcement and emergency teams to coordinate a response in the event of a bioterrorism attack. Local agencies have taken part in similar drills before.

"We want to make sure all the common players can have an opportunity to have input on this," Luna said of the one-day drill.

County officials said the drill will include simulations of a widespread chemical attack at a populated place in Ventura County, such as at a shopping mall, school or hospital.

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