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News: Decontaminated and Hung Over

By CityBeat Staff · May 25th, 2000 · News
  �Victims� of a chemical terrorist attack receive treatment from the Red Cross, Cincinnati Fire Department and others during the city�s May 20 mock disaster.
Brad Quinn

�Victims� of a chemical terrorist attack receive treatment from the Red Cross, Cincinnati Fire Department and others during the city�s May 20 mock disaster.

Here's CityBeat's tip of the week: Don't attend a mock disaster at the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) at 8:00 on the morning following your birthday party. Although we've attended only one such event, we can say unequivocally that it's not as much fun as it sounds.

First of all, there's no hospitality tent. Not even a doughnut. And secondly, well, there is no secondly.

Of course, we recognize that they don't plan mock disasters just to feed doughnuts to hungry, hung-over journalists. Their top priority is making sure that local emergency personnel are prepared in the event of an actual terrorist attack.

And what would the strategic value of a terrorist attack on Cincinnati be? To stop the production of Gibson playing cards or Kahn's Superdogs? In the grand scheme of international affairs, Cincinnati is, relatively speaking, a small-time player.

But, of course, that attitude is part of the problem.

Too many of us think about terrorism as only an external threat. What should always be remembered, and the lesson taken from the Oklahoma City bombing and even the Columbine High School massacre, is that the threat of terrorism from within is very real.

More than $9 billion is spent by the U.S. government each year fighting terrorism at home and abroad. And part of that money went into funding the mock disaster May 20 at the MSD's main facility in Lower Price Hill.

To get an idea of the event itself, imagine a sort of high-tech fire drill with carnage, gory makeup and screaming victims being led through a decontamination tent. To get a better understanding of our perspective, imagine this scenario as viewed from atop a sewer-scented MSD building roughly a quarter-mile away from the action.

As was to be expected, the MSD smelled like the south end of a northbound wildebeest on an August afternoon. But the members of the media who came to report on the event -- mostly TV news crews; no other newspaper reporters in sight -- good-naturedly braved the smell. Then there was a "mysterious mist" that was either falling gently from above or wafting up from the swirling brown muck below.

It's amazing how antsy TV newspeople get when they think they might be getting sprinkled with turd mist. With their prompting, it was decided that it would be OK for the media to leave the sewage area and view the event from the ground alongside the "VIPs," a medley of city officials and Department of Defense folks distinguished by the color of their hats.

The mock disaster was something out of a bad action film. There was an explosion -- actually just a blast from a bullhorn -- and two "bad guys" disguised as clowns. We never actually saw any clowns, but, then again, the whole event demanded a bit of imagination.

As far as mock disasters go, Cincinnati's wasn't as spectacular as some. The Department of Defense folks described a similar event that took place recently in Louisville with a set design including historic forts and a simulated city and featuring explosions, terrorists and general mayhem.

But our mock disaster did get the job done. Actually, we're pretty lucky, because Cincinnati was one of 120 cities chosen by the Department of Justice and Department of Defense to participate in the federal government's Domestic Preparedness program. The city's law enforcement departments were provided with $300,000 worth of equipment and two years of training that culminated in last weekend's disaster.

And although we didn't have all the fancy explosions -- though, to be fair, we had the mysterious mist -- Cincinnati we did pretty well, said Robert Plank, the Domestic Preparedness exercise coordinator.

"Cincinnati knows what it's doing," Plank said, giving kudos to our fire department and Red Cross volunteers for setting up the decontamination tent quickly and having the know-how to deal with the mock casualties.

Kudos also to Cincinnati for training more people than any other city save New York and Chicago, said Cincinnati District Fire Chief Jerry Lautz, local coordinator for the disaster.

The only aspect lacking in the drill -- besides a real explosion and the evil clowns -- was the sense of urgency that comes with an actual disaster. But it was reassuring that, at least in the relatively relaxed scenario of a mock disaster, Cincinnati's emergency personnel were so well-prepared. ©



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