Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
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Lexington, VA 24450

VMI Police Take Part in EPA Hazmat Exercise

FullTextImage/img/@altVMI Police participated in a hazardous materials exercise at VMI's McKethan Park April 22-23. -- VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

LEXINGTON, Va., April 30, 2014 – Last week, VMI police practiced serving a search warrant on a residence in which known felons resided and which was suspected of being a point for distribution of illegal drugs.

The action was part of a hazardous materials exercise for local law enforcement sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at VMI’s McKethan Park April 23-24. The event tested the county’s readiness for a variety of scenarios involving hazardous materials while also establishing contacts between various agencies in the area.

“This is the key,” said Robert Foresman, Rockbridge County fire, EMS, and emergency management coordinator. “VMI is a great partner with all of our response agencies here in the county,” said Foresman.

On Monday, VMI Police officers formed a SWAT team with Rockbridge County and Lexington police to respond to scenarios they may encounter in their work.

Lt. David Hensen, a VMI police officer and special emergency response team leader, said the scenario was extremely realistic and closely resembled drug busts that he has experienced in the past, testing officers’ skills and physical abilities. The exercise was complete with actors simulating the effects of a chemical spill and evidence planted around the Hartbarger Farmhouse, including a lab for explosives.

These exercises provided a valuable opportunity to train first responders in a controlled environment. VMI Police Lt. Edward Matheny, who helped plan the event, said there are many good takeaways from this kind of training.

“Nobody gets hurt and it’s still realistic training,” said Matheny.

VMI Police were not informed of the scenario ahead of time. The team split up, taking the house from two different entry points. Once inside, the team evaluated the situation and then began to remove the residents and make arrests. At this point, the police discovered meth labs within the residence.

Once chemicals were found, fire and EMS teams were brought in to secure and identify the chemicals, address threats to the public, and provide medical care. Then, a Hazmat response team from Roanoke removed the chemicals from the residence.

The exercise reminded first responders that it’s important to assess the scene before they act because of the unpredictable nature of these situations.

“There are hazards out there that may [prevent] ... them from doing the job,” said Matheny. The meth lab surprised the team, and the associated chemicals complicated the response.

Hensen said this exercise was especially valuable for VMI Police because it gave them the opportunity to experience these hypothetical situations beyond the law enforcement perspective. The officers had the chance to see what happened after they removed the victims from the residence and even received “medical care” for injuries they could have sustained during a similar real life experience.

The second day the scenarios focused on domestic disturbances. Residents were suffering from various types of distress, including burns and difficulty breathing. The patients were assessed and then sent to the hospital in order of the severity of their injuries.

VMI provided the venue for the event, McKethan Park. “This is a perfect location for an exercise like this, and we had great cooperation from the VMI police department and facilities,” said Foresman.

Planning for the exercise, funded by EPA at just shy of $100,000, has been under way for 18 months. Hensen noted that the exercise increased his confidence in the effectiveness of area response efforts.

Matheny especially was impressed by the result. “I think it’s very positive for the county,” he said.

--Annie Howard