Local agencies prep for unique disaster scenarios

By: 
Faith Lifer
Staff Writer

Imagine it’s 7:30 a.m. on a weekday in Oktibbeha County, when a truck headed south on Highway 389 carrying 24,000 pounds of chlorine suddenly veers to the right and slams into a bridge within Starkville’s city limits. Then, imagine the tanker catches on fire.

That’s what personnel from local agencies gathered on Thursday morning to imagine as they began to prepare for a hypothetical, yet potential, emergency situation in Oktibbeha County.

The meeting was held by Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Director Kristen Campanella for Oktibbeha’s Local Emergency Planning Committee.

The committee operates as an arm of the Emergency Management Agency, and committees like them were created nationwide to coordinate chemical storage information and to provide proactive planning for emergencies and chemical spill responses.

“Part of what we do is just kind of get together, see the chemicals everyone’s got, what everyone’s plans are in case something was to happen here,” Campanella said. “We have our major highways, and we probably don’t even want to know what’s coming up and down the highway sometimes.”

According to Campanella, there are close to 30 facilities in Oktibbeha County that are required to report the chemicals they house due to the large amount of chemicals they store.

However, there are also chemicals in the community, especially at MSU, that are not reported because they do not meet the threshold requirement. Those chemicals remain unknown.

“Which is scary because you don’t know what’s out there,” Campanella said. “It may not be enough to do anything, but if you get one that’s not enough to do anything and another one that’s not enough to do anything together, it could be something really big.”

Oktibbeha’s committee consists of members from local fire departments, law enforcement and medical personnel, as well as personnel from all of the facilities in the county that house hazardous materials on site. Volunteers from OSERVS and American Red Cross also participate.

After informing everyone of the nearest fire exits, Campanella began the “tabletop exercise” for Oktibbeha’s hypothetical emergency.

“What we’re gonna do today is just kind of talk about a play scenario,” Campanella said.

The tabletop exercise was a discussion-based activity in which the committee went through what each organizations’ plans and roles would be, step-by-step, in the event of a tanker accident and chemical spill in Oktibbeha County.

The exercise allowed agencies a chance to begin thinking critically about potential situations, then go back to their agencies and look at their plans, addressing any gaps they find.

“It kind of gets everyone aware too, what everybody else’s plans are before it happens,” Campanella said. “See faces before you get to a scene, know who’s who and who’s responsible for what.”

REFLECTIONS AND LOOKING FORWARD

Campanella plans to build off of Thursday’s exercise to a full-scale operation in the spring which may include an element of human trafficking.

“We’ll probably go to the functional exercise next, and then probably do a full-scale (operation) ... where we will actually have equipment moving and we’ll have a scene there and command, so all the moving parts,” Campanella said.

Campanella said the human trafficking element would be the cause of the truck wreck, where a female grabbed the steering wheel, steered it to the side, then jumped out with two children.

The human trafficking element would incorporate the FBI into the potential spring simulation.

“So that’s gonna build later to include our search and rescue side, looking for them,” Campanella said of the missing woman and children.

“The big thing now is human trafficking. People are becoming more aware of it, that it can happen here,” Campanella said. “There have been cases in Mississippi reported, which is scary.”

In fact, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 39 cases of human trafficking were reported in Mississippi in 2017.

“Everybody always wants to do an active shooter, or you know those type of scenarios,” Campanella said. “So this was just something different to get them thinking outside the box.”

Campanella thought the meeting went well, though she wished there had been more participation across the board.

“I think I would have liked to have seen more agencies here,” Campanella said.

No facilities with hazardous materials were present for the meeting. The Starkville Police Department was also absent.

“I think maybe having a little bit more participation would’ve helped,” Campanella added. “I hope to see that when we move forward, building it to full-scale.”

Campanella said she hoped for feedback as she looks to move the operation forward. She believes feedback is important for filling in any gaps.

“I hope I get some feedback. A lot of people don’t want to talk in a room with other people, so I have something I’m going to send out to everybody,” Campanella said. “If we get the feedback, hopefully we can learn from that and move forward.”

Campanella was hopeful the agencies present would also begin brainstorming for the potential disaster.

“Hopefully the people who were here today will go back to their agencies and tell what they learned today, and then test within their agencies,” Campanella said.

“Because, I mean, you do what you train for,” Campanella added. “If you’re not training, you’re not preparing, then when it happens, what are you gonna do? Are you ready?”

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