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Drill Tests Emergency Responders

CALHOUN, Ky. -- What would happen if pepper gas leaked into an air-conditioning system and exposed hundreds of assembled high school students to the irritating chemical?

The answer is far from simple, but on Tuesday emergency responders from six area counties gathered at McLean County High School and experienced the mock scenario firsthand.

Hundreds of first responders from Task Force 3 Regional Response Team took part in the largest-scale exercise involving decontamination for the area with fire departments, hospitals and communications systems from Daviess, Hancock, Ohio, Henderson, Union and Webster counties.

The exercise was initiated by the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security. Tom Arnold, director of training programs, said the objective of the drill was to test the team's incident management capabilities and find areas of improvement.

"We're not looking for weaknesses or shortcomings, we're looking to find what the capabilities are ... any weaknesses they determine they can work on and enhance their strengths," he said.

Nearly 100 students filed out of the school pretending to be agitated from exposure to a gas that had supposedly been spilled in the chemistry lab and spread into an auditorium through the heating and cooling vents.

One by one, the students stripped down to bathing suits and were sent through inflated shower tents by officials decked out in Tychem Hazmat suits and air tanks.

Part of the exercise involved decontaminating special needs students some of whom were nonambulatory.

Within 30 minutes, more than half the students had been showered, redressed in gowns and triaged by paramedics and first responders from surrounding emergency medical services.

Hospitals in Owensboro, Ohio, Union and Henderson counties participated by rehearsing their response to mock patients as well.

David McCrady, battalion chief at the Owensboro Fire Department, said one of the main obstacles the task force faced was communication as most of the departments operate on different radio signals or wavelengths.

But after all the students were loaded onto a school bus and shipped to designated medical treatments, Joey McCaslin, assistant chief at the Princeton Fire Department who evaluated the function, said he saw no major flaws with the response from 41 combined agencies.

"Once they got started they were able to move the kids fairly rapidly, and if this was an actual situation, the quicker we could decontaminate them the better the outcome, so they did well," he said.

McCrady said the decontamination training is vital for departments because chemical spills can happen anywhere there are gatherings, whether it be the ammonia used at an ice skating rink or 500 kids in a school auditorium.

McLean County High School Principal Ashley Troutman said the day's events allowed him to evaluate and make improvements to the school's crisis plan.

"I'd rather be prepared and not need it than unprepared and need it," he said.

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