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Training exercise laced with drama

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Training exercise laced with drama
Crews practice terrorism response at border

SWEET GRASS PORT OF ENTRY -- As the passenger bus rolled into the port for inspection, the bomb in the luggage compartment blew, and all hell broke loose.

People blown from the bus lay strewn around the building, moaning, bleeding, dying.

Clouds of hydrogen phosphide -- an extremely poisonous, flammable gas, used to kill rodents -- filled the frosty air.

Local police and firefighters, responding to reports of an explosion, quickly realized they were in over their heads. A hazardous materials team was needed, and fast.

Still to be discovered: the other bomb, this one in the passenger compartment -- and the terrorist who brought it all on.

Thankfully, by the end of the day, the dead had risen, the terrorist was freed and everyone sat down together for dinner and a debriefing.

Saturday's "disaster" at the Sweet Grass Port of Entry, the first of three regional terrorism preparedness exercises planned within the next year, was declared a success.

The drill was a testament to the dedication of the nearly 200 emergency and border patrol workers from both countries who gathered in 17-degree weather to learn how to maximize cooperation and minimize loss of life in the event of an actual terrorist attack.

Montana Disaster and Emergency Services coordinated the training exercise, which brought together fire crews, EMTs and sheriff's deputies from Toole County and the Canadian towns of Coutts and Milk River.

Law enforcement students from the Lethbridge Community College played the victims.

But the Cascade County regional hazardous materials team -- which includes personnel from the Great Falls Fire Department, Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard -- may have been the big star of the show.

"Some of us who had not had the privilege of watching a hazmat team work before were in awe," DES public information officer Monique Lay said, lauding "their true commitment to the safety of our citizens."

Drill participants wore cards that illustrated their roles; they said things like "I'm in shock." "I'm dead." "I'm the perpetrator, and I'm not going to cooperate with emergency workers."

Hazmat workers sent a $500,000 Malmstrom robot into the building to video the scene. They had to assess the damage, rescue passengers and determine the stability of the remaining bomb.

Others had to call a chemical hotline to identify the poisonous agent and its properties, so emergency workers knew how to treat the victims.

They learned that, unlike in other chemical spills, victims of hydrogen phosphide can't be hosed down. When mixed with water, the pesticide creates a vaporous plume that could spread beyond the scene.

They also discovered that cell phones didn't work at the port, so calling cards were employed instead.

Through it all, law enforcement officers were paying close attention to everyone -- were people in shock, belligerent, acting suspicious? Was their behavior the result of the chemicals, or of guilt? Were they victims or suspects?

By about 3 p.m., the explosives team was preparing to X-ray the bomb and determine how best to dispose of it.

Then came cleanup, dinner and debriefing.

Border workers not involved in the drill, and signs posted along the road, kept incidental weekend travelers informed and moving through the port.

"We had no reports of any interference or people blocking the roads," Lay said. "It's going very smoothly."

It was the first disaster drill to be held at the port since its remodeling, and one of the biggest so far in terms of American-Canadian cooperation, Lay said.

In the wake of 9/11, such drills have become essential, she said. Emergency workers in small towns must learn procedures rarely called into play and be prepared to use complicated equipment, Lay said.

Since 1999, Montana has gotten about $24 million in federal Homeland Security Department grants. A big percentage of that money is used to put on such exercises, including Saturday's, Lay said.

And the results were "extremely positive."

"The overall message is we can work together, we can work as one big team and do what we need to do to respond to an incident like this, whether it is an accidental incident or a terrorist activity," she said.

"We're not out there on our own."

Originally published Sunday, October 26, 2003

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