LeFlore County, OK -- Emergency Responders in LeFlore County, Oklahoma were the most recent participants in FEMA's highly successful Comprehensive HAZMAT Emergency Response-Capability Assessment Program (CHER-CAP).
After months of planning and training for the exercise more than one dozen Emergency Response agencies, businesses, and volunteers gathered on March 28 to test their response capabilities. The exercise started with a mock scenario of a school bus driver losing control of the bus, being struck from behind by another vehicle resulting in the school bus being pushed into a passing Kansas City Southern freight train. The bus struck a tank car on the train carrying Petroleum Naptha. The tank valve ruptured, allowing a significant leak of the product, which contaminated the area including the bus driver and several of the passengers.
To make the scenario realistic, exercise coordinators used volunteer students from nearby Carl Albert College and Kiamichi Vo-Tech School as victims. These mock victims were moulaged and encouraged to "act out" the part of an injured victim. Responders were then faced with the multiple responsibilities of identifying the hazardous substance, securing the scene, and treating and decontaminating victims. Exercise coordinators developed this scenario because it is a realistic possibility, as the Kansas City Southern Railroad runs through the county and frequently carries hazardous materials.
Although the exercise went well, the lessons learned on exercise day were only the tip of the iceberg. As with all of the CHER-CAP exercises, some of the most important lessons learned came not from the exercise itself, but rather the planning and coordination effort that is required of all participating agencies. What emerges is a greater understanding of roles and responsibilities and spirit of cooperation between all of the departments involved. All of the fire departments in LeFlore County are volunteer and there is no HAZMAT Team, which means that the county must rely on the Fort Smith HAZMAT Team across the border in Arkansas for assistance. This exercise provided an opportunity for all of the departments to plan and discuss a coordinated response to an incident and address any concerns prior to an incident.
The County made significant improvement in its preparedness level throughout the course of the CHER-CAP process. A strong LEPC was developed and several excellent leaders have emerged to ensure continued improvement. A key element to successful emergency planning is the support and participation of local industry. Industry partner AES Shady Point Power Plant provided funding and meeting space throughout the exercise and committed their resources to support the LEPC and local first responders when needed. All of the FEMA CHER-CAP team members agreed that the LeFlore County experience was particularly rewarding because of the significant improvement in their capabilities.