By Donna Thornton/News Editor
The situation emergency responders and support agencies faced July 25 was a serious one: A small plane taking off from Northeast Alabama Regional Airport dropped out of the sky and onto the roof of Millard Refrigeration in the Attalla Industrial Park area.
The crash caused a fire, which spread to surrounding woods and threatened some nearby homes. It also released a plume of white vapor – anhydrous ammonia – from the plant, forcing evacuations in the area, which includes Etowah High School.
Fortunately, the disaster described was part of an exercise conducted by the Gadsden-Etowah County Emergency Management Agency, which involved representatives from virtually every agency that might be involved if such an event actually occurred: police, fire, public works, school systems, the Red Cross and the media.
GECEMA Director Mike Bryant said planner Michael Amberson developed the scenario responders dealt.
He said he didn’t know what kind of situation they would be faced with until it unfolded.
“I want to be in the dark,” he said. “I don’t want to know about the scenario.”
Bryant, like other responders, wanted the drill to be an effective test of agency response to an emergency situation – dealing with all the variable that might come into play.
Those variables included a shelter in place order for the high school and surrounding homes, and dealing with parents who came to the school, wanting to take their children home.
At the same time, calls were being made to simulate coordination of transportation, firefighting, medical transport for injuries and calls were being fielded from mock media about injuries and about getting access to the scene. Someone posing as CNN asked if they could fly a helicopter over the area for aerial footage (the answer was no).
The goal of the drill was to look for ways response can be improved, and to troubleshoot any areas that might be problematic. Evaluations will help hone response to real emergencies.
“That’s what this is all about,” Bryant said. “It’s a learning experience,” he added.