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Emergency test response wins praise

This was only a test.

An anonymous woman _ actually a county emergency management worker _ called 911 early Wednesday to warn that a small plane loaded with stolen military weaponry and ammunition was flying to Hernando County Airport.

Two members of the fictional Florida Tri-County Freemen, a white supremacist militia, would meet the plane in a yellow rental truck. Everyone involved was armed and dangerous.

Go.

For the next 90 minutes, Hernando County law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, emergency managers and other first responders worked through the details of how they would handle the pending terrorist attack.

Sheriff's Capt. Mike Maurer took command, guiding the team through an assessment of whether the threat was credible, establishment of command and operations centers, and the eventual resolution to the situation.

They faced some curveballs, including massive storms and a bioterrorism threat, and contemplated closing major roadways and locking down nearby schools. In the end, the plane crashed and the bad guys were arrested.

All in all, participants deemed the practice exercise a success.

"I learned a lot more about the law enforcement end," said fire operations chief Danny Roberts. "That gives me a better understanding if anything like this was to happen."

Said Bill Appleby, the county's emergency management officer: "We need to practice together more often, so everyone can understand everyone else's role."

A team of evaluators gave the group overall good marks and also noted areas where the team could improve. For instance, Pasco County emergency management coordinator Charles Tear observed, they struggled with communication.

He suggested setting a pre-established radio channel for all responders to use in major incidents. Tear also recommended setting up a rumor control hotline, especially when parents can't get to their children because of emergency conditions.

Milton Hill, Sumter County emergency management officer, cautioned against using department jargon when several agencies get involved. During this incident, Pasco and Citrus county SWAT teams were called, as were hazardous materials response teams from Tampa.

"Everyone has their own language they speak," Hill said. "The commander needs to make sure everyone speaks the same language. That needs to be established, that we're going to speak plain English on the scene."

Al Gray, Hernando County environmental health manager, also raised concerns that after the plane crashed, few tests were conducted to determine whether the plane leaked dangerous chemicals. No one knew that jars of liquified sarin nerve gas were on board, he noted, until officers saw them.

Learning from missteps helps prepare everyone for the real thing, Maurer said. The threat of terrorism has changed the way law enforcement officers respond to calls, he said.

"We need to train together," he said. "We certainly respect and desire everybody's input. Combined, minds are a wonderful thing."

He noted that in a practice exercise, it's easy to depend on outside agencies to help.

"The problem we face is what else is going on in the community," Maurer said. "What you don't have in the scenario is what else they're busy with. . . . The reality is, you might have to do it on your own."

Appleby said the county will conduct more practices in the future.

"We just need to be prepared, because the next thing could happen at any time," he said.

_ Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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