City puts emergency plan to test
By Kristi Bailey - St. Joe News-Press
Bodies littered the hallways and blood droplets dotted a stairwell of City Hall after a terrorist-planted bomb exploded Thursday.
The bodies were real, but the wounds were not — the volunteers were acting as a part of a terrorism disaster drill.
But not all employees knew what was going on right away.
“I didn’t know until right before,” said Maggie Stanturf, communication coordinator.
The exercise got started a little earlier than planned.
The drill was supposed to begin at 10 a.m., but a man dropped off a suspicious package to City Hall as a part of the exercise earlier than expected. A secretary told City Manager Vince Capell about the package, and he sent an e-mail to City Hall workers telling them to evacuate the building.
“Everybody evacuated but then we were told to go back in (by officials coordinating the drill),” Ms. Stanturf said. “Then the bomb went off. It went off right outside my office window. My ears are still ringing.”
In a meeting after the drill was completed, Mr. Capell said he wasn’t sure if the package was a part of the exercise or not, partly because of the time it was delivered, and that he told workers to evacuate as a safety precaution.
When the “bomb” went off, firefighters, police officers and medics responded to City Hall and set up command posts. Firefighters entered the four-story building and began assessing the situation.
Across the street at Pacesetter Credit Union, 1201 Jules St., employees were at first confused by the commotion.
“I was inside and heard the boom,” said Dixie Cooper. “I thought, ‘God, what is going on?’ Then a city employee came over and said, ‘They just blew off the top floor off of City Hall. We thought we’d come over and warn you.’”
When firefighters began searching for victims, they found some “casualties” and some “walking wounded” but all had gruesome, lifelike injuries thanks to special effects and makeup.
Once firefighters took control of what was going on inside City Hall and began helping victims down the stairs, the rescuers were informed that a secondary “bomb” was found in a vehicle in the parking lot.
Firefighters were told to “get out of there,” by Battalion Chief Joe May, who was the firefighter in charge of the scene. Everyone was told to move back more than a block from City Hall.
While most firefighters and police officers were at City Hall, the heads of both organizations and other city department leaders were at City Yards, setting up an emergency operations center.
“It’s important to be away to avoid distractions and danger,” said Fire Chief Stephen Richey. Mr. Richey said the leaders used maps to determine a safe distance and location for emergency personnel to retreat to after they found out about the second “bomb,” and they recorded the times of all decisions made on huge lists that were taped to the wall.
At about 11:30 a.m. a second “bomb” went off, and the loud noise signified the end of the exercise.
The purpose of the drill was to see how the city’s emergency plan worked, see how the different city departments worked together, and to see what updates or changes need to be made to the plan.
“I think it went pretty well,” Mr. May said. “It was very realistic and a good learning experience.”
Jason Ziph, a firefighter who helped coordinate the drill, said despite a few tasks that could have been performed faster or better, the experience was good.
“I learned quite a bit today,” Mr. Ziph said. “As long as it makes a better plan and shows areas to improve on (the drill was a success).”
“It’s the best drill I’ve ever participated in from the standpoint of realism,” Mr. Richey said.
Ms. Cooper was glad the city was conducting the drill.
“I think it’s great, especially now the way things are (nationally),” Ms. Cooper said. “The city is trying to be prepared. It makes you feel a little more at ease.”
Mr. Richey said he and Mr. Ziph will review the initial evaluations of Thursday’s exercise. He said he has requested that department leaders turn in a more detailed report of suggestions to update the emergency plan.
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Kristi Bailey - St. Joe News-Press
Source: St. Joe News-Press