Birch Bay drill simulates national emergency
By Al Krause & Ruth Higgins
Camp Horizon, the former air force base, came to life Tuesday when a mock disaster brought together fire and rescue workers, law enforcement, the army and the marines to fight a mysterious chemical discharge.
“As a test of cooperation it was a 10,” said chief Tom Fields of the North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Service, initial incident commander of the “full scale exercise.”
This was part of a national program, known as NLE 2-08 (for National Level Exercise, second one this year), organized this week by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to test coordination in response to simulated natural and man made disasters. The Mid Atlantic Coast struggled with a Category 4 hurricane; Birch Bay and Seattle faced terrorist attacks.
Following the deadly chemical “discharge” in Camp Horizon shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, chief Fields and his aides set up the field command post at the entrance to Camp Horizon on Alderson Road.
Soon fire trucks, HazMat (hazardous materials) vehicles, a mass casualty van and ambulances were on the scene. Eventually specially trained marines from the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF), based in Indian Head, Maryland, swooped onto the scene with special equipment for reconnaissance and decontamination.
The first “survivors” exited the camp at nearly 10:30 a.m. The 24 drama students from Western Washington University and 28 nursing students from Whatcom Community College played “victims.”
Moulaged for cuts, bruises, fractures and burns, moaning and crying, they stumbled into a simulated fire-hose decontamination shower, then on to a bare triage area.
An hour later, ambulances started taking the red tagged (in need of immediate care) to St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham. Ambulance crews came from as far away as Skagit County and Whidbey Island.
A trio of helicopters flew some of the rescued by the Marines to the Bellingham airport for transport to distant hospitals.
After six hours, a tired chief Fields was pleased. Fields said first-responder safety is critical – especially with regards to unknown substances – and that situation and special resource needs assessment must occur before any action starts.
“Our rescue people come first,” the chief said.