Payson Mayor Ray Schum is rarely stumped for an answer to any question except the one thrown at him earlier this week, when he was a guest of a radio talk-show program.
"As we were discussing the recent terrorist attacks, the caller asked me about the town's emergency preparedness plan," said a mildly red-faced Schum after the program, "and I didn't even know we had one."
Today as the nation tries to recover not only from last month's terrorist attacks, but also this month's episodes of suspected bioterrorism Schum not only knows that the town does indeed have such a plan, but "a darn good one that has been in existence for years" and that can be easily adapted to any possible disaster.
"What's not in there is what we do in the case of a terrorist attack," Schum said, "but we're even on top of that, and have been for several months. Last April, we sent one of our firemen, Gary Vohs, to Las Vegas for a Department of Justice seminar on terrorist attacks ... and he is now instructing the rest of the fire department on that element of our preparedness plan."
Vohs returned from that seminar with a bright yellow, two-inch-thick manual, now in the possession of every fire department in the country, which includes emergency plans for "all hazards, all disasters," Payson Fire Chief John Ross said.
"Terrorism means there's going to be an explosion, a biological problem, an incendiary problem, things of that nature," Ross said, "and all of those things are addressed. This book tells us how to set ourselves up locally and expand the plan after the mayor declares a disaster for the Town of Payson to the county, state and the federal. All of the resources that America has will come to Payson, if necessary."
The Town of Payson has already conducted a pair of emergency-response drills to test the plan, and both were successful, Ross said.
In November of 1999, a drill was conducted fully across the Payson landscape, involving the United States Forest Service, area fire departments, Canyon State Ambulance, the Department of Public Safety's haz-mat team, law enforcement agencies, several town departments, the Red Cross, Gila County Emergency Services, amateur radio operators, utility companies and the school district.
The disaster invented for the exercise involved an increasingly dangerous leak on the side of an ammonia tank at the Northern Gila County Sanitary District, and a subsequent propane explosion, wildland fire and area evacuation.
Within hours, the faux fire was under control, the ammonia leak contained, the wounded were treated and had been transported to the hospital.
"According to Gila County Emergency Services, it was the finest drill they've seen that exercised a town plan," Ross said.
Equally successful was a smaller drill, conducted last year.
"That one involved a Payson Regional Medical Center explosion a helicopter (crashing) into the building where there were mass casualties to deal with. We utilized other area fire departments, DPS helicopters and things like that to exercise portions of our plan."
A new drill is planned for November or December of this year, Ross said, "to exercise some of the newer aspects of our plan" in the wake of continuing terrorist threats. The goal, ideally, is to have everyone working on the same page."
For an example of how effective that strategy can be, even when "You truly don't know what's around the corner," Ross says one need only recall the events of Sept. 11.
"The New York City Fire Department has an emergency operations plan that prepares them for haz-mat problems, flooding, explosions and things like that, just like we do," Ross said. "While they don't have a specific provision for 'World Trade Center comes down,' the plan they do have sets everything up to deal with any type of emergency, and they exercised it. The mayor was involved, along with their town departments and agencies from throughout the area who were the first responders."
In Payson, as in New York, the very first of the first responders would be its firefighters. Asked what actions his department would take in the event one current fear was realized the mass distribution in populated areas of bacterial or chemical agents by cropdusters, as opposed to the U.S. mail Ross' response made it clear that the scenario has already been given consideration.
"Our first responders would go to the scene," he said. "Anthrax is noncontagious, so with our self-contained breathing apparatus, etcetera, it's not a hazard (that would prevent us from starting to manage) the sick and injured.
"We would set up our emergency operations center, let the mayor know, and start building up our support staff. We'd call Emergency Services for Gila County and the Arizona Department of Emergency Management, and they would start sending resources