Agencies handle bombs, blood in downtown drill

Shortly before the start of a multi-agency, full-scale exercise at Wells Fargo on Pioneer Way, an unsuspecting bank customer pulled into the lot, parked next to a burned-out car in a stall littered with broken glass and walked into the bank where a dozen or so bloody mock victims sat waiting for the drill.

Citizens walking or driving into a real mass casualty crime scene wouldn’t happen in real life, said Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace.

“You’re always going to have problems when you compress for a scenario,” he said. “If it was real, there would have been a much larger area shut down. We didn’t want to disrupt traffic on Pioneer Way and City Beach Street.”

More than 100 responders from Oak Harbor Police and Fire departments, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team from Navy Region Northwest, Whidbey General Hospital emergency medical services, the Island County Sheriff’s Office, and 22 volunteer victims participated, said Oak Harbor Fire Chief Mark Soptich.

The full-scale exercise was funded by a Homeland Security grant and the city of Oak Harbor’s general operating budget.

“Our goal is interoperability,” Soptich said at a pre-exercise briefing for observers. “It is really important that we work together on this so we can all communicate and not get hurt.”

For four hours in the cold rain, the police, firefighters, medical personnel and members of the bomb squad tended to the live scenario that began with a call for service. They reacted to scripted details given by volunteer victims at the crime scene where imaginary suspect Paul Vincent Smith detonated a bomb to retaliate against his ex-wife Deborah Lacy Smith.

The parking lot at Wells Fargo and DSHS resembled a true-to-life disaster scene with three burned and crumpled cars and a dozen bloodied victims laying in the parking lot.

Firefighters assessed the scene, set up a triage area and began tending to the victims while police secured the inside of the bank and gathered information from eye witnesses. They learned that Paul was driving a white car that they were able to track to the DSHS parking lot. Inside the DSHS building, Paul Smith held his ex-wife and others hostage.

Outside, in the DSHS parking lot, the Navy bomb team investigated a visible bomb inside Paul’s car with the use of remote-controlled robots.

“Each year gets a little better. We keep adding elements to it,” Soptich said.

The night wasn’t without its problems, said Wallace.

“We’re looking for the kind of problems that are consistent with multiple agencies trying to work together. And we had that,” he said. “Seeing it happen reinforces that we can improve on communication.”

It’s tough to respond with one agency, let alone five, he said.

“We could buy our way into better communication,” Wallace said, adding that it’s not really an option due to financial constraints. “Instead we need to find non-technical fixes to communicate effectively.”

Many of the issues identified during last year’s drill at Oak Harbor High School were corrected this year, he said.

Chief Soptich also felt this year’s production ran more smoothly.

“The exercise is designed to practice what we drill on throughout the year and to identify our strengths and weaknesses,” said Soptich. “This is an opportunity to perfect our ability to communicate effectively with multiple agencies to orchestrate a successful outcome.”

The departments didn’t encounter any major issues, and nobody got hurt, he said.

The drill wrapped up at about 10:30 p.m. with two minor explosions when the Navy bomb team detonated a set of small bombs, and life in Oak Harbor went back to normal.

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