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Workshop to tackle terrorism, disasters

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

GRAFTON -- A chemical spill in a downtown. An act of terrorism at a school, a hospital, a bus station. An evacuation of a crowded highway.

Officials from around the North Central region are gathering to learn more about handling such terrorism or natural disasters at a Thursday workshop at Tygart Lake State Park in Grafton.

"The state has a plan in place that tries to think out any possible scenario, whether it's man-made or natural," said Melissa Atkins, public information officer for the state Office of Emergency Services, which is sponsoring the event as part of its efforts to coordinate disaster services.

"This gives individual counties the chance to look at how their plans compare," Atkins said.

About 55 people from Barbour, Harrison, Tucker, Taylor, Marion, Monongalia and Preston counties are already signed up for the workshop, Atkins said. Room is still available for additional participants.

"The folks that are coming are county OES (Office of Emergency Services) directors, first responders, police officers, firefighters," Atkins said. "We are also inviting county commissioners, as well as other local elected officials. ... We've even had people from hospitals and board of education officials."

This is the fourth of nine such workshops statewide. The first half of the day will be devoted to discussion sessions. The second half will include a "tabletop exercise," in which participants will verbally work through their response to a surprise disaster scenario. In the past, Atkins said the scenarios have included highway evacuations or the deliberate release of chemical agents.

"The scenario is given and questions are addressed to the group," Atkins said. "What would you do next?"

For example, in a highway evacuation, if victims are airlifted away from the scene, does airspace need to be closed temporarily? Or, how can special cleanup facilities be set up for emergency workers who may have become contaminated by chemicals?

Atkins said the state is urging counties to come up with cohesive plans -- now.

"Sometimes, there's a cocoon type of factor, where people think this could not happen to us," Atkins said. "Every situation is different, but there are still some common denominators in knowing what resources are available and what can be done to help."

There is no fee for the workshop, which runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Interested individuals who would like to register may call Atkins at 304-344-4538.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.

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