July 9, 2003 Emergency management teams representing police, fire, paramilitary and emergency medical services are sitting down together to consider the possibilities of a terrorist attack on the Virgin Islands. A two-day tabletop exercise is being carried out by officials of the Department of Homeland Security between Tuesday and Wednesday on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
The exercise was conducted under security constraints. Trainers said they wanted to keep some of the information being shared with local emergency responders away from the public because they were discussing the nature of biological and chemical weapons. Responders were taken through a scenario that involved an attack on a popular commercial location that would result in many deaths and injuries.
"It's a discussion of issues that would arise during a hypothetical situation," said Rob Schweitzer, an official with the Office of Domestic Preparedness. "What we do is present a scenario, in this case a chemical agent dispersion that occurs within the downtown limits of St. Thomas, specifically Vendor's Plaza, and we've broken out each of the representatives into their respective functional areas."
According to Eddy Charles of the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, for many of the responders on St. Thomas, this week's weapons of mass destruction drill was another opportunity to face potential disaster through coordinated efforts. Charles said he agreed with a recent assessment made by V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, who said Virgin Islands responders are better prepared than many emergency teams in U.S. states.
The reason why local first responders work together so well, Charles said, is because the same group of people are called to assist in any number of disasters, from hurricanes to hazardous material spills to large brush fires to cruise ship emergencies.
But Schweitzer said the distinction between this exercise and other emergency practices is the focus on recognizing the signs that a weapon of mass destruction may have come into play.
"The biggest thing is awareness, so when you do these exercises you present all the representatives and the responders with the signs and symptoms that are unique to weapons of mass destruction, or chemical agent, or biological agent," he said.
Once the information is disseminated among the first responders, Charles said the next step is to pass some of the details along to support service agencies that provide material support in the event of an emergency. The departments of Property and Procurement and Human Services were two of the agencies he named as examples of those providing such support.
"You've got to bring this thing to a head," Charles said. "And to do so it's going to take some drills. So for the individual that train from the various agencies, there are other personnel within the other agencies that support these first responder agencies."
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