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Area First Responders Train for Worst Case Scenario

The story could have been ripped from recent national news headlines: Shots Fired On College Campus; 50 victims – several dead; police and emergency responders coming from miles around to lend assistance . . .

 But fortunately, this time, it was only a drill.

Virginia Western Community College hosted a two day, multi-jurisdiction exercise for more than 350 first responders from such agencies as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and local, state, and federal law enforcement groups, while 150 staff members played the roles of victims and bystanders.

The purpose was to test regional capabilities for first responders as well as education and family assistance.

As the various groups gathered in the college parking lots, some wore their tactical gear. Others were dressed in yellow T-shirts with the word “victim” on the back. An orange shirt meant “Controller,” red was for “Evaluator,” and green was for “Logistics.”

It was the third emergency event for Roanoke Valley first responders in as many months. First there was the derecho in June, then President Obama’s visit to Roanoke in July, and now this exercise in August. Mike Guzo is Roanoke’s Emergency Management Coordinator.

“We plan and prepare and exercise and train and it’s what we do. It’s why we do it.” “Any incident – it’s dynamic. We can train an exercise responding to a flood, but it’s going to be different every time. With those three events if we have another dignitary come in to the Valley here we’ll be better prepared because we’ve just gone through it and worked through that. So, the plan is as good as the paper it’s on . . . getting out and exercising only makes us stronger and better prepared.”

He says organizers have been planning the event for about 11 months. Josh Meyer, Coordinator for Marketing & Strategic Communications at Virginia Western, says the planning went back even further than that with a tabletop exercise where first responders talked through a scenario. They have now put that talk into practice.

The event began with shots being fired as members of a domestic terrorist group took hostages while trying to rob a cashier in one of the buildings. One “suspect” was arrested in a parking lot, while four others were “neutralized.” Emergency officials held press conferences to take questions and update the media. Others manned a family assistance center, providing information to “victims’ families.”

Mary James from Roanoke, an employee of Brandon Oaks Retirement Community was one of the “victims.” She was shot in the leg. “I thought it would be a nice way to spend a day out of the office,” she said. Fellow employee Dana Newton from Smith Mountain Lake organized the volunteers from Brandon Oaks. He was wearing a yellow “victim” shirt and was shot in the shoulder. “I’m always trying to get involved at some sort of emergency response. I work with the Sheriff’s Department a little bit down at Rocky Mount, so this is a great opportunity to make sure I facilitate and meet with some of the folks up here in the Roanoke area.” He said his volunteers were helping as a follow-up to the derecho. Brandon Oaks was without power for 2 ½ days and he says that was “a big learning curve for everybody.”

Brandon Oaks employee Lucy Klein from Roanoke was another shooting victim. “I just thought it would be interesting. I have two daughters who were at Virginia Tech and I just wanted to see how the response system worked.”

Hopefully such training will never be needed but it’s nice to know that area first responders have done everything they can to prepare for a worst case scenario.

 – By Beverley Amsler

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