St. Petersburg Times

Emergency responders test readiness for chemical attack
A rodeo arena becomes the setting for an exercise in preparation for weapons of mass destruction.
By MARY SPICUZZA
Published March 31, 2005


Weapons of mass destruction? In Hernando County?

Well, no.

But county officials are working to make sure that they're prepared in the event of a terrorist attack.

On Wednesday, they transformed Jimmy Batten's Bull-It Rodeo Arena into the scene of a simulated terror plot.

"It's just to test our skills and assess our weapons of mass destruction capabilities," Hernando County Emergency Management Director Tom Leto said.

The county's weapons of mass destruction exercise began early Wednesday. That's when Jimmy Batten stumbled upon a team of "terrorists" mixing chemicals on his property.

"I will make my concoction now," mock terrorist and pioneer CERT team leader Scott Amundsen said, dressed in a large white suit.

He and another white-suited faux terrorist, CERT team member Tom Jones, stood mixing "chemicals" with paddles, next to an old ambulance covered with a sign that said, "Jacksonville."

"The idea was that around Super Bowl time, they would use that ambulance to drive into a crowd in Jacksonville," Lt. Craig Baxley of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office said.

Mock terrorist snipers had taken over the tower overlooking Batten's arena.

White fog billowed from a nearby smoke machine.

Then the simulated 911 call went out, setting the various emergency response teams into motion.

"The main thing is that we can quickly identify the source of the problem," Leto said. "That's an important element. Let's see them think quickly on the fly and investigate."

Members of the Hernando County Regional Hazardous Materials Response Team, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and the Community Emergency Response Team participated in the exercise, which was funded by a federal Office for Domestic Preparedness grant.

After the call, sheriff's deputies arrived to keep watch over the situation.

Members of the Sheriff's Office rapid response team eventually moved in, dressed in big blue suits, and approached the "bad guys."

"Two hundred yards out, there is a sniper deployed. Simulated," the radio announced.

Later, the "terrorists" fell to the ground after being "shot."

Leto said the teams had to keep safety and law enforcement issues in mind.

"If there's any terrorist people involved, you don't want to hinder any federal investigation," he said.

Afterward, the rapid response team stormed the tower to look for snipers. Others monitored the air quality.

Several dummies were taken to local hospitals, which had set up their emergency rooms to decontaminate the "bodies."

This was Hernando County's second weapons of mass destruction training event. Last year, the scenario involved a terrorist plane that was forced to land at Brooksville Airport.

Participants said the exercise built skills beyond dealing with terrorists.

"Take away the word "terrorist' and put in "drug runner,' and the same scenario is there," haz mat training officer Frank DeFrancesco said. "What's running rampant through the state is mobile drug labs."

He said the haz mat team is trying to become a Type 3 team, meaning it will be regionally recognized to respond to industrial accidents.

After several hours of training, peace was restored and Batten's Bull-It Rodeo Arena was once again secure.

"The best thing about catching the bad guys out here is they can't run," Leto said.

Mary Spicuzza can be reached at mspicuzza@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.

[Last modified March 31, 2005, 01:28:16]