When a bus with 12 people on board crashed into a train carrying gallons of toxic fumigant at dusk, dozens of emergency personnel swarmed the scene.
Luckily, it was only a drill.
The full-scale exercise on Oct. 2 was hosted at the Umatilla County Fire District 1 Station 23 on Westland Road, but the simulation represented the intersection of Cooney Lane and Umatilla River Road.
“Coordination is the biggest part of this,” said Dean Marcum of the Oregon Health Authority, who directed the exercise. “Everybody plays and activates their emergency operations plans to see how everything works and if everyone is coordinating together.”
Multiple local health care and public safety agencies, including the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, Umatilla Fire District 1, Lifeways and Good Shepherd Health Care System were involved.
Marcum said larger drills like last Wednesday’s are important, because lots of different chemicals are transported through the Umatilla County area by truck and are often unlabeled.
“It’s the same with trains. You never know what you’re going to run into,” he said. “That’s why you have to train for all hazards.”
The National Weather Service was present as well, and simulated the incident on the computer.
“This is always a learning experience,” said Senior Meteorologist Vincent Papol, who is stationed in Pendleton.
He said in the case of a spill, weather can affect how chemicals spread and are released. He noted wind, for instance, could change the direction of a chemical leakage.
After emergency responders rescued the victims — who were played by volunteers from a local youth group and by hospital employees — from the crash, they were transported to Good Shepherd. There, the hospital simulated decontaminating the victims and addressing their medical needs.
Public information officers and dispatch participated as well, sending out simulated internal communications. Dispatch announced the simulation over the scanner.
Internally, different agencies hold their own drills frequently. But a big inter-agency simulation only happens once a year, and it’s not cheap.
Marcum estimated the cost of last week’s exercise at $20,000. The exercise was made possible with grant funding from the Umatilla County Local Emergency Planning Committee, which develops an emergency preparedness plan and informs citizens about chemicals.
The LEPC also supplied the train car used for simulations at Station 23.
“It is hard to secure grant funding for drills like this,” Marcum said. “It’s hard to disrupt the day to day, and it’s a big burden on budgets.”
In 2011, the Umatilla Chemical Depot disposed of the last of the mustard gas on-site. That also faded the county’s partnership with the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, which funded two drills and other preparedness efforts each year.
Marcum said a spill like the one used in the simulation would take three or four days to contain and clean, and would have sparked evacuations for all people living within half a mile around the spill.
Prior to the drill, Marcum and other organizers worked to keep the scenario and the location a secret in order to keep the exercise authentic.
“Everything is hush hush until the time of the exercise,” he said. “We don’t want anyone pre-planning their approach.”