Drill aids Texas town in emergency response

The city received high marks for its response, coordination and control during a December incident

By Jeff B. Flinn
San Antonio Express-News

WINDCREST, Texas — "Practice makes perfect," or so they say. In the city of Windcrest, practice certainly helps, especially in the case of emergency.

In July, more than 100 Bexar County area first responders took part in a hazmat drill in an unoccupied portion of the former Windsor Park Mall, now occupied by Rackspace Hosting. Fire, EMS, police and emergency management personnel from Bexar County, San Antonio, Windcrest and surrounding cities and agencies responded to the drill, which staged a hostage situation complicated by the potential release of foreign and hazardous chemicals.

"We often find ourselves coming together at various points on different events," Bexar County Fire Marshal Ross Coleman stated in a press release about the drill. "It is key that we be able to (communicate) efficiently and effectively."

In December, the scenario changed from drill to reality. A young child inside the Immigration Custom Enforcement building in the 8900 block of Fourwinds Road found a balloon filled with about two teaspoons of a white, powdery substance. An INS building security guard alerted authorities, and emergency teams descended on the property.

Windcrest Fire Chief Dan Reese and Windcrest Police Chief Joe Pabon said the summer training session helped them prepare for such an emergency, introducing them to agency interaction and the human elements of disaster and evacuation.

The call arrived that Dec. 3 morning at about 10:20 a.m. and police, fire and EMS personnel were on the scene in minutes.

"Part of the lesson learned in the drill ... was the coordination with Bexar County teams in a hazardous materials event," Reese said. "In the exercise, we worked with Bexar County and two hazmat teams. In the actual incident we needed a hazmat team, put out the call and bang, the hazmat team was there.

"When we showed up, we didn't know what it was. (Hazmat) showed up with an initial crew of two, to determine what it is, the severity of it," he added.

Windcrest established a contingent of emergency management at the Valero Convenience Store next to the INS building. "Windcrest was in charge of the overall event. We had to determine who's inside, how many people are inside and may need to be evacuated. But we had no problem with any of the (responding) agencies once we established a hierarchy," Reese said.

While Reese's crew focused its attention on what was happening inside the locked-down building, Pabon's officers turned their attention to the building's grounds and perimeter.

Six Windcrest police officers were used to secure the building and the parking lot, keep curious bystanders away and turn back people arriving on the scene that had business to conduct inside the building.

Another level of involvement arrived in the form of federal officials, since the incident occurred in a federal building.

"We provided support for the Federal Protection Service by securing the perimeter," Pabon said "And with our guys out there, we kept them informed as needed, communicating through radios. We did have breaks, we kept them watered and did what we could to get food to them, as it was a long day."

Once the Bexar hazmat team was on the scene, it entered the building, secured the substance and began running tests to determine what the substance was, and what — if any — danger it posed.

"First they tested for drugs, and that came back negative. The second test was for toxic or hazardous chemical. The third test ... all their tests on-site were inconclusive. They went through the tests and eliminated all the bad qualities."

The FPS' "credible threat" determinaton came back as "undetermined, unlikely," Reese said.

While the meticulous on-site evaluation was being performed, the authorities had four potentially exposed individuals inside; the alerting security guard, the child who found the balloon, her sibling and their mother — not to mention 250 people working in the offices throughout the five-story building.

"The scene wasn't cleared until we determined what the material was, or wasn't, in this case," Reese said.

Pabon said the situation "was eventually downgraded. They didn't determine it 'was safe,' just that the substance didn't pose any threat."

About 1:30 p.m., more than three hours after the incident began, authorities evacuated the 250-plus people located in the rest of the five-story building. With the incident having occurred in a first-floor lobby area, all the evacuees were ushered out a back stairwell and away from the premises.

Full decon stations were set up and made ready for any evacuees and the initial four involved.

"Full decon is clothes off, a full scrub-down and (body) wash. Full decon was conducted on the four, and every one who came out was offered decon," Reese said.

Windcrest personnel stayed on the site until 4:30 a.m., making for a six-hour day.

"Our part in it, other than being in charge, is not huge," Reese said. "You want to set up a command post and stay there. Part of what you learn each time is how to do things more efficiently."

Windcrest EMS and fire officials assisted with manning the decon tents, helped with the decontamination process and were available if any other situations arose. The city received high marks for its response, coordination and control.

"(Federal and county personnel) were very pleased with our response, and their response to our response was very positive," the fire chief said. "They clearly got some very good support from the city in several areas."

Copyright 2011 San Antonio Express-News

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