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A dry run for handling a disaster in the city railyards

(The following article by Sewell Chan was posted on the New York Times website on March 29.)

NEW YORK -- How would New York City respond if a bomb filled with arsenic trichloride, a highly toxic liquid compound, were to explode on a freight train moving through a Queens railyard — just when a commuter train carrying weekend passengers was traveling in the other direction?

Emergency workers would rush in, try to determine what threat was involved and begin decontaminating the dozens of wounded. A temporary morgue would be set up to receive the dead — estimated at 28, including two of the rescuers. That nightmarish situation was the basis for a four-hour simulation yesterday involving 1,500 police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers and tested the city's ability to respond to a chemical emergency, though not necessarily a terrorist attack.

The Office of Emergency Management planned the field exercise, named Trifecta because it emphasized three activities: search and rescue, victim identification and handling of the dead.

Despite the grim nature of the exercise — the casualties would have included 74 injured — the commissioner of emergency management, Joseph F. Bruno, said it demonstrated the effectiveness of the Citywide Incident Management System, a protocol that governs how various city agencies are to interact during a major emergency.

"I'm happy and I'm actually a little surprised that it worked as well as it did," Mr. Bruno said at an afternoon news conference, after most of the exercise had been completed.

A critical element of the response plan gives the Police Department overall command of the city's emergency agencies in most major disasters, at least until the possibility of terrorism has been ruled out. The Fire Department had sought control of several types of situations, including those that involve hazardous materials.

The plan, which took effect under an executive order signed last April by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, was prepared after a lengthy examination of poor coordination and communication among city agencies, particularly the Police and Fire Departments, during the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

Yesterday was the first major field test of that agreement. Police commanders set up a "unified command," which provided for top officials from the police, fire, health, environmental protection and other departments to make joint decisions. "It's a matter of respecting their core competencies," Mr. Bruno said.

Although police and fire officials clashed during the formation of the plan, leaders from both sides said yesterday that it was effective.

"I think CIMS is clearly the way to go, and I believe it's been accepted by all the agencies," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said. Frank P. Cruthers, first deputy commissioner at the Fire Department, said the test was "a very realistic exercise" and added, "The level of cooperation was terrific."

The exercise, financed by $700,000 from the federal Department of Homeland Security, began with a mock explosion at 10 a.m. in the railyard at Maspeth, Queens, an industrial neighborhood dominated by factories and warehouses. The New York & Atlantic Railway provided the freight train for the exercise, while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority supplied a Long Island Rail Road passenger train.

Several federal and state agencies participated, as did nonprofit groups including the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

The Fire Department was the first to respond after the simulated explosion, followed by the Police and Environmental Protection Departments. "When you look at this incident, it seemed at first to move very slowly in the beginning," Mr. Bruno said afterward. "That's just the way it has to. We do not know if there are other explosive devices here. We do not know the nature of the chemical." Once the various officials evaluated the danger, he said, they made "good, crisp decisions."

Mr. Bruno said the exercise proceeded with only a few glitches. At one point, he said, a centralized operations post had to be separated from the command post because "there was too much confusion."

Since 9/11, the city has had other drills involving the premise of a terrorist attack, including one at Shea Stadium in March 2004 and another at the Bowling Green subway station, in Lower Manhattan, in May 2004.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

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