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Only looks like terrorist event

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Area crews train for terrorist event

Tribune Regional Editor

SWEET GRASS -- Travelers approaching the U.S. Canadian border at the Port of Sweet Grass this morning may get a shock as they catch sight of flashing lights, Hazmat teams and cop cars.

Not to worry -- it only looks like a terrorist event.

The hubbub is a drill coordinated by Montana Disaster and Emergency Services to prepare local fire crews, EMTs, sheriff's deputies and other emergency teams for the real thing.

Traffic will move through the border as usual, provided there's no rubbernecking, said Ed Gierke, project leader with Montana Disaster and Emergency Services.

"They'll be encouraged by a patrolman to not stop," said Gierke, who's based in Conrad.

Responders from the Canadian towns of Coutts and Milk River will join teams from across Toole County in the all-day training exercise. The Cascade County regional hazardous materials team also will be on hand, which includes personnel from the Great Falls Fire Department, Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard.

Toole County participants, most of them small-town law officers and firefighters or volunteer responders, would be the first on hand in a real incident, Gierke said.

"Under the best case scenario those people (at the border) are two hours from any significant help from major jurisdictions, and when are lives saved? -- within the first two hours of an event," Gierke said.

The drill gives responders a chance to work together.

Toole County Sheriff Donna Matoon said she knows who to call in an emergency, such as the Great Falls Hazmat team.

But "you have names and phone numbers and that's where it sits," she said. "Now we'll have an opportunity to work with these people and get to know them and what they can and can't do and they'll also understand what we can and can't do."

Gierke would give few details about the simulated terrorist event, except to say it will be like the real thing -- no lunch breaks or other luxuries.

High school drama students usually play victims in such drills. But the conditions of this exercise are so tough and realistic that law enforcement students from the Lethbridge Community College will play the victims.

"Those people are going to be put under some significant stress," Gierke said. "They're going to receive medical treatment."

The event starts with a safety briefing at 8 a.m. this morning. Crews will start to demobilize at about 4 p.m.

"It's going to be a learning experience for us because we really don't know what we're getting into yet," said Don McAlpine, chief of the rural volunteer fire department in the tiny town of Sunburst, less than 10 miles south of the border. "They've made everything real sketchy for us."

The drill is the first of three regional terrorism preparedness exercises planned within the next year.

"This one is mainly dealing with highway transportation," Gierke said. "The next one might be a specific federal building or a high-profile corporate facility."

The Montana Department of Disaster and Emergency Services planned the drill with funding from the federal Homeland Security Department, Gierke said.

The cost is undetermined, but will be at least several thousand dollars, he said.

"One of the reasons why we're doing this exercise is to also figure out how much this kind of deployment would cost," he said. "We're evaluating capability. We're evaluating plans. The reason we do this is to get better."

Originally published Saturday, October 25, 2003

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