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Drill Levels Learning Curve

Mock terrorist attack and a chemical weapon blast simulation involve 1,700 first responders, volunteers.

September 16, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

In what law enforcement officials said was the largest exercise of its kind in Orange County, more than 1,700 people participated Wednesday in a mock terrorist attack involving chemical weapons.

More than 400 people were "injured" and several "died" in the exercise, but to authorities, the real-life hospitalization of three police officers and a firefighter provided one of the day's important lessons.

The four nearly collapsed from heat exhaustion while wearing chemical suits. From that experience, emergency officials learned not to overestimate the length of time officers can stay in sealed suits with gas masks, said Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

The four victims were treated at hospitals.

The hazardous-materials suits also muffled voices, making it difficult for people to be understood as they shouted orders and described conditions, Carona said. The problem might be addressed by adopting a uniform set of hand signals, he said.

A full analysis of the drill will take several weeks.

Although high-ranking officials knew the exact scenario beforehand, the firefighters, police and medical teams responded to events as they unfolded.

The exercise, funded by a $530,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security, involved 22 Orange County police departments, 13 fire departments, the Orange County Sheriff Department's Terrorism Early Warning Group, the Orange County division of the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, the American Red Cross, 10 area hospitals and the Orange County Health Care Agency.

The drill began as a raid on a suspected terrorist "safe house" in Anaheim, where officers discovered a chemical weapons factory and learned of a possible terrorist attack.

Several hours later, a terrorist group took hostages at an Orange County Fairgrounds concert and "detonated" a chemical bomb.

The response to the mock attack brought a flood of police patrol cars, motorcycles, fire department vehicles and ambulances to the fairgrounds parking lot.

Students and instructors from nursing schools served as hostages and victims, many of them dripping with faux blood or pretending to show the effects of the bomb's nerve toxin as emergency teams rushed to their aid.

Forty victims were taken to hospitals and 120 took themselves to emergency rooms.

Realism was added to the exercise by loud bangs of staged gunfire and fiery explosions.

While police, fire and first-aid officials will spend several weeks evaluating how participants conducted themselves during the drill, they said it appeared to be a success.

"The objective wasn't to see how good we could do," Carona said, "but to test those areas where we have weaknesses, to push ourselves to the ultimate so they have the potential to fail and if they do, determine why."

Said Costa Mesa Fire Department engineer Bob Masuzumi: "A drill is never a waste of time."

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