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Emergency management teams test reception center plans

Human, canine volunteers participate in simulation of nuclear power plant catastrophe

Key leaders of the reception center and evaluators will hold a follow-up meeting to discuss the drill and FEMA’s report at the Westminster Town Hall on Jan. 20, 2015.

WESTMINSTER—Daisy, a friendly dog resembling a German Shepherd, walks with her owner through two temporary columns rigged with sensors to detect radiation contamination.

She is one of 15 volunteers who participated as evacuees during a test of the state’s reception center at the Bellows Falls Union High School, Dec. 4.

Reception centers are part of the response by the state and by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to radiological emergencies.

The centers take in people evacuated during a nuclear accident, screening them for radiation exposure, decontaminating them if necessary, and then directing them to a shelter or providing food and other support services.

The Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security will later give the local EMS workers a passing grade for this day’s drill.

Mike Fawcett, a volunteer of 45 years with the Westminster Fire Department, pets Daisy before her owner leads her away.

Fawcett has participated in multiple drills related to training for catastrophe at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station in Vernon.

He points out the scanning equipment on the portable tall white poles and in sensors along the ground that pick up radiation on cars and people — and, yes, dogs — that move between the sensors.

Inside the high school, Vernon resident Sandy Harris and her husband speak with Red Cross volunteers. Briefly separated during the drill, the two spoke with the Red Cross volunteers about going to shelters. They registered with the Red Cross’s Safe & Well program (safeandwell.communityos.org) designed to help people locate loved ones displaced during a disaster.

Two other citizen volunteers sit in chairs outside the high school auditorium speaking with paramedics. One volunteer said he evacuated his house and forgot his diabetes medication.

Federal regulations now require that communities in evacuation zones near nuclear plants hold such drills every eight years. Previous regulations called for drills every six years.

Agencies involved in the exercise included the town of Westminster, Westminster Volunteer Fire and Rescue, the Vermont Agency of Human Resources, Vermont Department of Health, Red Cross of Vermont and New Hampshire, the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, and other local volunteers.

In all, more than 100 people took part in the exercise as either emergency responders or evacuees.

Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (DEMHS) wrote in a post-drill press release: “In an actual event, residents of the Emergency Planning Zone (Vernon, Halifax, Guilford, Brattleboro, Dummerston, and Marlboro) would pass through the reception center upon evacuation.”

“FEMA evaluated the exercise to identify strengths and weaknesses in operations, and a final report will be prepared within 90 days with any recommendations on how to improve operations for future exercises or actual events,” wrote DEMHS.

The press release also read, “Vermont Yankee is ceasing operations this month, but conditions at the plant still mandate continued emergency planning in the surrounding area.”

Entergy, VY’s owner, has asked the federal government to shrink the EPZ’s border to the VY perimeter, which would release the Louisiana-based company of its financial obligation to help fund emergency response in the EPZ.

For the purpose of the drill, emergency responders at the center were told that terrorists with suicide bombs had attacked Vermont Yankee. Although quickly subdued by law enforcement in this scenario, the terrorists managed to cause damage to the reactor building and spent-fuel pool, causing the pool to leak and cause localized ground contamination.

In response, authorities called for the evacuation of Vernon and Guilford. Residents were instructed to drive north to the reception center at BFUHS.

Greenfield, Mass., and Keene, N.H., also host reception centers, although those states did not participate in the Dec. 4 drill.

Vehicles, people, and Daisy were all screened for radiation contamination, underwent simulated decontamination procedures if necessary, and then met with Red Cross volunteers, who directed people to shelters and helped with reunification of friends and families.

FEMA standards require that the BFUHS reception center have the capacity to screen and move 4,009 people through in 12 hours. This is approximately 20 percent of the population within a 10-mile radius of VY.

According to Elizabeth Wareing, a VY volunteer manager for the American Red Cross New Hampshire & Vermont Region, the organization will open a shelter if 10 or more people have been displaced.

The Red Cross tries to send people to shelters closest to their home community, she says.

Ideally, the organization would like to establish a shelter in every Vermont community to help house evacuees during any kind of disaster, Wareing says. Right now, the organization is in the process of establishing enough shelters across the state to house 6,000 people during a disaster.

But the Red Cross is not equipped to handle people contaminated with radiation, says Wareing. It would take evacuees after they had passed through the initial phases of screening at the reception center.

One of the Red Cross volunteers staffing the reunification/Safe & Well table says that being separated from loved ones during a disaster is scary for people.

“A lot of emotions go through,” she says of the people signing up for Safe & Well.

Erica Bornemann oversees the planning section at DEMHS.

During an actual emergency, she says, a call to evacuate nearby schools would sound before a general call for evacuation. This strategy gives schools the time to bus students to the reception center before transferring them to pre-designated receiving schools. Parents pick up their children from the receiving schools after moving through the reception center themselves.

The reception center decontaminates domestic pets, said Bornemann. The department feels that if people are told they must abandon their pets, some of them won’t evacuate.

Most shelters don’t take pets. Owners would need to find other arrangements for their pets.

As the drill ends for the evening, John Angil II, DEMHS radiological emergency response plan program manager, comments that the time spent drilling for radiological emergencies has prepared local emergency responders for other disasters.

With some of the area’s industry and proximity to a railroad, it could experience other disasters like chemical spills, he says.

“This gives us a good base to do other stuff later on,” says Angil.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #284 (Wednesday, December 10, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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