Va. university puts emergency responders to the test
By Anna L. Mallory
The Roanoke Times
Copyright 2007 The Roanoke Times
RADFORD, Va. — A small plume of smoke billowed just west of Radford University's McConnell Library on Monday, causing at least five people to become contaminated with an unknown hazardous material.
The smoke and its consequences were all part of a drill to test the school's response in the event of a real emergency, said Ann Hillenbrand, a school spokeswoman. The scenario was the first of several new emergency drills planned at the school this year and the first in more than a year, said Roy Saville, the director of facilities.
School administrators have been updating an emergency procedure manual, and the faux hazmat drill was a way to test communications, he said.
The university asked the state to evaluate its response, and it is common for the state to do so. To make certain the school follows its own rule book, a group of employees from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management observed the exercises, from the first police cruiser that arrived on the scene to the people evacuated from the library.
Each employee answered 10 questions, including deciding whether the right people were called and whether the media were effectively handled. The questions were posed to them by Radford officials.
About 4:45 p.m., 15 minutes after a bystander called the Radford University Police Department's dispatch center saying that a "greenish smoke that seemed to be choking people" had leaked, fire trucks had yet to reach the scene. Two fire trucks and two other response vehicles from the Radford Fire Department arrived about 4:50 p.m.
But university police had a barricade at the front of McConnell Library, and university police officers ringed the area, making certain people stayed away from the smoke.
"So far, they're doing exactly what they should be doing," said Jack Tolbert Jr., a hazardous-materials officer with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
Tolbert said the fire department would have to be in charge of the scene because police officers are not trained to deal with such spills.
Because only about a dozen people on campus knew about the drill, some people who were forced to evacuate the library were stunned by the smoke.
Those evacuees were told one by one to leave the building because it does not have a public address system.
However, one man, curious after leaving the building, walked toward the pipe emitting the fake smoke and stood there. He was not stopped.
Now that the drill is complete, university and city officials will look at the steps they took. If they decide changes in university procedures need to be made, they must be approved by President Penelope Kyle and her cabinet, said Todd Branscome, an emergency planner with the university.
Branscome, who was also the caller in the scenario, said any changes will depend on what evaluators and participants found. Changes in first responders could result.
The university is also in the process of choosing a campuswide emergency alert system, which was not used in the scenario.