Drill Proves Emergency Crews Ready For Disaster

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By Friday afternoon, the fire was under control, the ammonia leak contained, the wounded were treated and the dead were transported to the hospital.


In the end, the Town of Payson's first disaster drill proved to be an important lesson to Rim country residents: their police, fire and medical emergency crews are prepared for the worst.


"One of the hardest parts about the drill was pretending it was an early June morning, when we were all freezing," said Bill Morris, one of the actors who volunteered to play a battered and bloodied victim of the drill.


The object of the drill, said Payson Fire Chief John Ross, was to dream up a hypothetical situation, stress the capabilities and resources of the area's emergency crews, and then evaluate the community's readiness for an emergency.


"It's something the town is required to do, but has never done," Ross said last week. "We want to be ready for any kind of disaster, especially with Y2K right around the corner."


This particular disaster probably couldn't happen, officials said, but it was staged at the Northern Gila County Sanitary District for convenience.


"It's extremely unlikely," manager Joel Goode said Friday morning, as the "victims" were taking their places. "We've gone almost 10 years without an accident."


The deadly sequence of events began with workers trying to repair an ammonia tank at the sewage plant. A loose bolt on the tank gave way and released ammonia gas, creating a noxious plume over the nearby Fairway Lane neighborhood prompting an evacuation of that area. In the midst of the chaos, a driver backs into a gas meter. His lit cigarette touches off a propane explosion that sparks a small wildfire.


"We had a lot of folks playing from around the region today," Ross said at the Friday afternoon evaluation. During that evaluation, less than a handful of problems were identified, including difficulties with communications.


"At one time we had dispatchers stepping on other traffic on the radio," said Police Communications Supervisor Della Bradley.


Drill planners also overlooked staging of security in the evacuated neighborhood to prevent looting.


Chief Paul Coe of the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department also served as an evaluator of the drill. One problem area Coe noticed was emergency vehicles driving into the "hot zone" --the area contaminated by the ammonia gas --making u-turns and leaving.


"There seemed to be EMS workers unaware of where the hot zone was," Coe said.


Another problem actually caused the interruption of the drill for a few minutes, when one of the actors had trouble breathing.


"It was pretty chilly out there that morning," said Capt. Marti deMasi of the Payson Fire Department. "I think she had a little trouble breathing as a result of that and was taken to the hospital. She was released later and was fine."


Mariano Gonzales of the Gila County emergency services department watched over the entire drill, and in his review of the operation, said he was highly impressed.


"Overall, I would give it a grade of excellent," Gonzales said. "My challenge to you is to continue this kind of drill on an annual basis, exercising the various aspects of your EMS plan."


Others in the audience agreed, although many said they'd like the next drill to be held in the spring or summer.

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