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Cross-Border Disaster Drill: Vermont Did Well But Can Do Better

Local Matters


Published May 16, 2006 at 8:46 p.m.

SWANTON -- Vermont's emergency responders don't have any serious deficiencies when it comes to their ability to handle a major terrorist attack near the U.S.-Canada border. But there are still some "chinks in the armor" that need to be fixed.

That was the assessment last week from the "after-action report" on "Operation Double Impact," the first-ever joint U.S.-Canadian disaster-preparedness drill, according to Lt. Jim Colgan, northern field manager of the Vermont Department of Homeland Security. Operation Double Impact, which was held at the Franklin County Airport on October 13, 2005, tested emergency responders from Qu⁄bec and Vermont on a simulated cross-border terrorist incident. In it, hijackers "exploded" two tanker trucks filled with chlorine gas -- one in St. Armand, Quebec, and the other in downtown Swanton. About 254 responders from more than 13 federal, state and local agencies participated in the one-day drill. The exercise, which cost more than $100,000, was paid for by the Vermont Department of Homeland Security but included about a year's worth of planning, training, equipment purchases and rentals. Drills like this one are designed to help emergency planners spot weak links in their response chain -- information bottlenecks, deficiencies in resources or training, equipment malfunctions and improper or inadequate procedures.

For security reasons, the final report itself won't be made public; it's considered "unclassified but sensitive information." According to Colgan, the report determined that Vermont's emergency responders "did a great job" but still need improvement in some areas. Among them: cellphone capabilities in northwestern Vermont, the ability of different agencies to communicate with one another, the availability of English-French translators for cross-border coordination, and the need for better training and more personal protective gear for volunteers.

"Communications is always an issue, no matter what we do or where we go statewide," Colgan says. "But there was nothing that came up that really slapped us in the face."

That said, the drill did feature some unintended, real-world emergencies. During the exercise, two participants who were playing the role of victims began suffering hypothermia due to the cold and rainy conditions. Also, because many emergency-response vehicles were parked close to one another, several people were made sick by exhaust fumes.

Overall, Swanton Village Fire Chief Pete Prouty says he was pleased with how his department performed in Operation Double Impact and believes the after-action report was "very fair." Still, he says the staged scenario was "very, very plausible." Interstate 89 and a major railroad line run through Swanton, he says. The town also has a lot of truck traffic and is close to Montreal. In a real terrorist attack, Prouty believes his agency would be pushed to the limit.

"Do we need more stuff? Yes. And the report shows that we need more stuff," Prouty says. "We need more equipment and we need more training. But we're already asking our volunteers to do a lot."

Small, part-time fire departments such as Swanton's must also weigh the costs and benefits of investing in counterterrorism preparation when other, more immediate day-to-day needs also require their attention. He notes, for example, that Swanton Village is looking to buy a new fire engine, at a cost of $280,000.

"In the big scheme of things, the local taxpayer is going to ask, "Are we going to spend that money on something we need every day," he asks, "or on the one-time, what-if scenario?'"

The after-action report was prepared by Community Research Associates (CRA) of Alexandria, Virginia, a privately owned consulting firm that specializes in terrorism preparation and response. CRA created the scenario for the Vermont Office of Emergency Management and provided all the "injects," or simulated events and intelligence, which kept the exercise moving forward.