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Homeland Security exercise provided beneficial training

By Staff | Sep 14, 2012

Members of the Jefferson County Swift Water Rescue team participate in the recent multi-county Homeland Security drill. The team rescued “victims” from the Potomac River at Shepherdstown.

The West Virginia Homeland Security offices held a high water exercise in multiple counties Saturday. The regional disaster involved a variety of scenarios including a “river rescue” using Jefferson County’s Swift Water assets who tested plans, procedures and capabilities as they pertained to a severe flooding and dam release incident on the Potomac River.

Homeland Security Director Barbara Miller advised that the Jefferson County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated from approximately 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The scenario was that remnants of a hurricane caused rain and flooding conditions throughout the region. At the height of the flooding during the exercise, there was a problem with the Jennings Randolph Lake dam, located on the borders of Mineral County and Garrett County, Md., on the North Branch of the Potomac River. It is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Miller said the dam was in danger of collapsing and officials released water at that point to come downriver.

“We were already at a 100-year flood stage due to a hurricane,” she said. “The additional water coming down the river took us to a 500-year flood stage, something that rarely happens.”

Miller explained that during the exercise, her office received calls from the other Homeland Security offices upriver sharing specifics such as hazardous material in the water as well as debris. These details were all parts of the exercise that had to be addressed, just as they would in a real emergency situation.

Parts of the exercise in Jefferson County involved two different water rescue scenarios. Volunteers served as “victims” in the river at Shepherdstown and in Harpers Ferry who were rescued by the county’s swift water rescue teams.

Rescues done in Shepherdstown involved both Jefferson’s rescue team and a team from Potmac Valley Volunteer Fire Company in neighboring Maryland. Six individuals were pulled from the river where they posed as Shepherd University students who had been “caught unaware” as they were partying near the river. Volunteers included Cheryl Beuning, Leslie Hess, Robert Gillette, Mark and Roxanne Shields and Fred Collins.

One unexpected turn of the day, Miller said, was the need to take a “timeout” from the exercise as Jefferson County came under a threat of severe weather. There were severe storm warnings and heavy rain that had the county’s 9-1-1 center receiving actual calls that had to be dealt with.

“We had to suspend the exercise for about a half-hour,” Miller said.

The disaster included the counties of Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Hampshire, Hardy, Grant and Mineral. All of these counties participated in the regional exercise testing a variety of capabilities in the region.

Miller said the day was a success in that it allowed her department, as well as similar departments in other counties, to test a lot of procedures that are in place should any similar event occur.

“We had a very successful day and a lot of cooperation between a large number of agencies,” Miller said. Miller went on to say that these exercises allow those responsible for responding to such disasters to better prepare for real life. No event is perfect, she shared. “We learn something new every time.”