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Colorado Responders Use Fairgrounds For WMD Drill

LONGMONT - With the concussion of two police "flash-bang" grenades, dozens of emergency responders went into action at the Boulder County Fairgrounds on Thursday morning.

The drill, dubbed "Operation Liberate," was designed to test how well firefighters, police, paramedics and hazardous materials teams from agencies across Boulder County and northern Colorado would cooperate and communicate amid the use of a weapon of mass destruction.

"This exercise is to test their training about how to respond to an unknown situation," said Longmont police Cmdr. Tim Lewis, who helped coordinate the event.

Although the responders who participated in the training didn't know what they were facing at first, they quickly pieced together the nightmare scenario: A bomb containing sarin gas -- a chemical nerve agent that has previously been used in terrorist attacks -- exploded among a political rally at the fairgrounds.

After a Longmont officer patrolling the event called in the first explosions and carried out a mock victim on his shoulders, dozens of first responders began arriving and assessing the situation.

Teams included the Longmont Police Department, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office, the Boulder Fire Department, the Longmont Fire Department, Boulder Rural Fire, AMR ambulances, Boulder Mountain Fire, Boulder County Public Health, the North Metro Hazardous Materials Team and the Colorado State Patrol.

Gil Struck, a captain for the Boulder Fire Department, was sent to the fairgrounds' exhibit building to deal with casualties and hazardous materials.

"It does happen," he said of major disasters. "These type of exercises help us prepare for these large-scale incidents."

Lewis said it took months to design and plan the exercise, which included booby traps for the Boulder County Bomb Squad to deal with, and dozens of volunteers who played the role of victims -- screaming and crying for help from emergency workers clad in gas masks and chemical suits.

"It's not set up for failure, but it's set up to challenge" them, Lewis said.

In all, about 50 first responders participated in the training, using a wide variety of ambulances, fire trucks, patrol cars and decontamination equipment.

Professional evaluators were on site to assess every step that each department took in figuring out what the threat was and how to keep people safe. They will meet in the coming months with department administrators to compile a report about what went right, and what could be improved.

Lewis said a focus of the exercise was how well the different agencies are able to communicate, given the different radio frequencies and command structures of the various departments.

"Each group will grow and learn how to work better," Lewis said. "The best lesson is that everyone can work together effectively and find a solution."


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