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Nuclear disaster drill throws a few curve balls
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Monday, 21 November 2011 00:00

Agencies from across the Verde Valley, the region and the state participated earlier this month in Vigilant Guard Arizona, one of the largest disaster preparedness drills in Arizona’s history.

The idea behind the drill, which ran from Nov. 3 to 6, was that the Phoenix metro area was inundated with flood waters. On top of that, terrorists detonated a nuclear device somewhere in the Valley of the Sun.

Not everything was smooth sailing, but then again, the idea of the drill was to figure out how to improve reactions before an actual disaster.

“We have a bucket full of feedback we’re going to be going through over the next couple of weeks,” said Brian Supalla with Yavapai County Community Health Services. “During the exercise itself there were a lot of curve balls that came at us. Some early assumptions didn’t pan out.”

In particular, Supalla said health workers whose job was to help decontaminate fleeing residents learned how to work with the HAZMAT team from the Camp Verde Fire District.

First responders and health agencies tested how they would react to such a crisis. Thousands of people and at least 250 organizations across the state took part in the exercise.

In the Verde Valley, the Camp Verde Unified School District complex was turned into a staging ground to deal with people role playing as Phoneix-area residents heading north to flee the disaster area.

In Cottonwood, the Verde Valley Medical Center pretended to deal with an influx of patients in the midst of the staged crisis.

Exposed to radiation and evacuated from her home, citizen-actor Jeri Strader, right, lists her most pressing concerns to exposure registry volunteers Tom Bast, left, and Freda Jeffries while participating in the Arizona Vigilant Guard disaster drill at Camp Verde High School on Nov. 5.Roughly 30 people participated.

The HAZMAT team worked aggressively, Supalla said, which caused some issues with creating records health services would want to keep track of people who may be affected years down the road from exposure to radiation.

“But that’s what it’s about, to test our strengths and weaknesses,” Supalla said.

On the fire district’s end, the exercise went well despite the occasional hiccup, CVFD Fire Chief Clayton Young said.

“It was a good exercise, it went well,” Young said. “We all learned something.”

Young said this type of training was invaluable in the event the fire district ever had to face an actual crisis of this magnitude. He noted this was particularly important regarding decontaminating people coming though the Camp Verde area, since the town sits along a major corridor and is connected to highways that travel in all directions throughout the state.

If victims aren’t treated quickly, they could spread potential contamination to other areas, Young said. The idea is to get it under control quickly.

“It was a learning experience,” Young said, adding that the firefighters would look at what happened and implement what they’ve learned in the future.

At VVMC, things were hectic, spokewoman Starla Collins said.

“For me personally it was a great learning experience as a PR person, since I was responsible for all internal and external communications,” Collins said.

The hospital set up decontamination tents and acted under the premise that power was out and communications were spotty. Collins said that local ham radio operators stepped up to help keep people connected.

The hospital had its share of curve balls too, Collins said, including trying to figure out what to do if 30 people showed up at once or if worried residents started to bring their animals to the hospital.

“It’s a great learning experience, and it was great to be able to work with other agencies in the county and state,” Collins said.

Now the hospital plans to take what it learned and “fine-tune the process a little,” Collins said.

While Collins and all the other people involved in the drill certainly hope to keep such a disaster confined to a hypothetical situation, they all agree that it’s best to be prepared.

 

Mark Lineberger can be reached at 567-3341 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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