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Responders join forces in full-scale exercise

A simulated terrorist attack spilled over onto Whidbey Island Monday, stretching the first responders and forcing cooperation between myriad organizations and groups.

The full-scale exercise was spread throughout North and Central Whidbey with four separate incident sites.

“It was a very involved exercise with fires and overturned cars,” said Mike Simmons, Island County Department of Emergency Management emergency planner. “The scenes were challenging. I think they were done very well. The public really got to appreciate the fact that the fire department’s job can be very technical.”

Inclement, stereotypical October weather coupled with early darkness decreased comfort for the countless emergency and medical personnel involved, and the volunteer “victims.” However, the conditions helped recreate realistic circumstances and served to heighten the urgency.

Part of the exercise included a stolen airplane exploding over Oak Harbor, sending a large, burning portion of the aircraft crashing into a residential area near the city maintenance shops. Another piece slammed into a wooden building near the post office, collapsing the structure. Extensive work went into setting up the sites.

“We had 17 patients by the shops and five in the collapsed building,” said Oak Harbor Fire Chief Mark Soptich. “The responders actually had to shore up the wood as they got to the patients. This was real world.”

The plane section at the city shops was actually a Mobile Aviation Fire Training Device on loan from the Navy, which simulates fire. Going a step further, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s Search and Rescue helicopter touched down to pick up victims and “theoretically” shuttle the wounded to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

With Navy planes continually flying overhead, communication was made even more difficult, the fire chief said.

“The crews were working while this was going on,” he said. “And everyone’s on a few frequencies.”

The budding volunteer actors playing the victims might have had it the worst. At least the first responders were in constant motion or housed in warm command centers.

“We put the victims in some tough situations,” Soptich said. “Some of them had debris on them. It makes the whole drill more realistic.”

In one case, the exercise planners threw the crews a curve ball. A victim in the collapsed building spoke only Spanish.

“We have some bilingual firefighters and we had to get them over there,” the chief said. “It made it very interesting. That kind of situation is what this is all about.”

With adrenaline boiling and senses on high alert in the participants as they attempted to reconcile the chaos and their duties, an adolescent thrill invariably surfaced in the cavalcade of emotions.

“It’s very exciting,” Soptich said.

Linette Andres of Moulage Lady Trauma Makeup in Arlington provided victims with disturbingly realistic injuries.

“We had a lot of burns, what I like to call ‘crispy critters,’” Andres said. “We had metal sticking out of bodies, compound fractures. I make my own blood and thicken it so it oozes everywhere.”

The volunteer victims ranged in age from 10 to adult. Playing mom, Andres brought hand-warmers for the actors and opened up her van to allow them their own makeup experience.

“It’s a participation thing,” she said. “They were jazzed and ready for this.”

Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue crews responded to a car that crashed into a building on Engle Road. The SAR helicopter also touched down in Coupeville for the simulated loading and extraction.

“It went very well,” said Capt. Robert Spinner. “We haven’t done an exercise this size for quite a while.”

Lt. Kiersten Whitacre, SAR mission commander, said after the exercise that the drill showed the community the tremendous air asset residing in their own backyard. The networking with fire and medical crews was also invaluable.

“Now that all the emergency team leaders on the island are on a first-name basis, things will go that much smoother when the real thing happens and the pace quickens,” he said.

Simmons said each agency or group involved with the drill will coordinate with the county DEM and a report will be filed with the Department of Homeland Security.

“We need to sit everybody down and go over the big things,” he said. “It will take about a month to have the report ready to submit.”

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