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Training exercise tests Aurora, Hanson, Davison firefighters

Trainees during Saturday's tri-county emergency management full-scale training exercise move toward a propane tree. Deputy Fire Marshall Paul Coon controlled an exercise where law enforcement, firefighters, search and rescue and other emergency personnel participating had to follow specific instructions to fight the fire during the simulation. (Candy DenOuden/ Republic)

A tornado swept through the area, overturning a transport causing a hazardous material spill, and even starting a fire. What do you do?

This was the scenario posed to area law enforcement, emergency personnel and first responders Saturday during a fullscale training exercise.

Aurora, Hanson and Davison counties worked together on the exercise, which started at the Davison County 4-H grounds and moved to other sites throughout the day.

Davison County Emergency Manager Jim Montgomery said the training is required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"It's one of those things you do because it will make us all better," Montgomery said. "You have to have your plan and then you work the plan." What's not required, he said, was the choice to combine exercises with Aurora and Hanson counties. "It's our first large scale and full-scale exercise," said Dave Baker, Aurora County emergency manager. Baker said since Aurora, Hanson and Davison counties have mutual aid agreements, a cooperative training effort seemed like a good way for the different groups to come together.

"It's the best way to exercise all our capabilities," he said. "It gets everybody used to each other."

The training featured nearly 50 members of area law enforcement and first responders, including police officers, sheriff's department personnel, search and rescue, and firefighters.

Montgomery said the day's exercises contained four main components -- a fixed fire site, a table top discussion, a hazardous material spill simulation and an overall communications evaluation, all under the pretense of a tornado.

Each situation had a control officer, and groups rotated through the stations. Montgomery said evaluators, including personnel from State Radio, determined how well responders communicate with one another.

For instance, Montgomery said State Radio in Pierre wants one person from an emergency situation designated to make a call requesting equipment or assistance.

"Instead of three or four people saying, 'Oh, I'll call that in,' " Montgomery said. "Then all of the sudden we wind up with three or four times what we need."

Responders were also evaluated on communication with one another using radio equipment, giving clear instructions or requests, and making sure others were not talking over each other.

"There's going to be some slipups, guaranteed," Montgomery said. "It's practice makes, not necessarily perfect, but, certainly much better."

For the fixed fire, Deputy Fire Marshal Paul Coon set up a propane tree, meant to simulate the fire caused by a rogue tornado. When lit and "opened up" to full capacity, the tree gives off 3 million BTUs, according to Coon. Though for most of the exercises the tree operated at less than full capacity, Coon did give trainees a sobering glimpse of what 3 million BTUs looks like. "So they can see what it's like in the real world," Coon said. Coon gave detailed instructions to each group of responders, explaining how he wanted them to handle the exercise and things to watch out for. Montgomery said having expertise like Coon's is another advantage of training exercises. "We do have some high profile people here," he said. "You know they've been through anything and everything."

That expertise can be especially valuable for cross-training different sectors of emergency personnel and first responders, Montgomery said, because the first people at the scene of a fire or hazardous waste site might not be people trained in those capacities.

"First responders, generally it's law enforcement," Montgomery said. "If they're not in tune with what it might be, where it's our habit to want to get in and do things ... if they don't know, wait."

Though he said most of the people involved with the training exercises are experienced, the cross-training provides a chance to improve and to ask questions.

Another part of the exercise involved a hazardous waste site, also caused by the hypothetical cyclone, set up at a CHS elevator.

Exercise controller Bob Small, a hazmat specialist with Sioux Falls Fire and Rescue and a captain with the South Dakota National Guard, said the situation simulated a truck leaking a potentially hazardous material.

Placards are used to identify what sort of chemical a vehicle is carrying, he said. Part of the exercise was to see if responders know how to identify and respond to those different placards.

"The guys that placard trucks are not chemists, they're shippers. Mistakes happen," Small said.

During the simulation, Small said he used a placard to symbolize the vehicle was carrying corrosive materials. He said trainees should immediately spot a discrepancy between that placard and the vehicle, a water truck from the Davison County Highway Department.

"That kind of container would not carry acid," he said. "Why would an acid truck be here?

"I want to see if they (trainees) recognize that things make sense."

The table top discussion revolved around the idea of a hazardous spill, which Montgomery said focused on the logistics of an evacuation. If a tornado caused a chemical spill with vapors, there would be no choice but evacuation.

"That's the worst case scenario, when you have to start moving people," Montgomery said. "Especially when they're immobile."

Though Montgomery said he won't know the official evaluation results, which must go through FEMA, until October, he received positive feedback from Saturday's exercise evaluators.

"They (evaluators) enjoyed the exercise, and they felt everybody who was there did a good job," he said. "All in all, I think we had a good exercise."