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UWF Hosts Hazardous Material Spill Exercise

John Blackie

First responders from the western Panhandle joined with state and federal officials Tuesday morning, for a hazardous materials exercise at the University of West Florida.

The scenario: classes were in session with about 10,000 students on the UWF campus. At around 9:00 a.m., calls go out about an explosion and or fire in Building 58: which houses chemistry, biology and research labs.

“First responders and actors that are playing out the role of someone who has been involved in a chemical incident,” said Brandi Whitehurst, with the West Florida Regional Planning Council whose Local Emergency Planning Committee oversaw the drill. “It’s a test of our LEPC comp plan, and the response of all of our agencies.”

On scene, a number of emergency vehicles were in the back parking lot at Bldg. 58, with personnel in bunker gear and other protective clothing shuttling in and out of the building.

“They divide up the crews that went inside and did a room-by-room search,” said Steve Mewborn, Logistics Chief for Santa Rosa Emergency Management. “The found them [the victims] then they starting bringing them out. Most of them were ambulatory, but if they weren’t they had to take them out on a stretcher or backboard.”

Credit John Blackie

Their injuries, ranging from minor to major trauma and burns, were written on tags worn around their necks for crews to conduct the triage. The scenario also called for at least three fatalities. Their bodies, in a real incident, would be left in the building and handled by the Medical Examiner’s office.

Then it was time for the local HazMat team to move in, from Escambia County Fire-Rescue, whose commander is Lt. T.J. Smith.

“The primary role today is to help with the identification of what materials may be involved,” said Smith. “And to make sure that our victims have been cleaned properly before they’re taken from the scene for treatment.”

After the four-hour drill was complete, they’re held every two years, the participants headed back to Building 92 on campus for a cookout and a “hot wash” review of the exercise.

“What worked well, what did not work well, and ways that they can improve on this,” said Whitehurst. “Actors, evaluators, controllers are all going to come together. The hot wash will be a chance for them to find ways to improve upon their response.”

Across campus in Building 12, meanwhile, the other part of the drill was underway, UWF marketing staff set up a central communications location, acting as a clearing house for information and data from the exercise.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.