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National Guard performs hazardous materials drill at Holmes Hall

Posted on Nov. 10, 2013, at 9:59 p.m.

Christopher Burns

For The Maine Campus


The University of Maine was one of the 20 locations across the state last week to take part in a test of Maine’s emergency preparedness procedures led by local emergency responders and National Guard units throughout New England, including New York and New Jersey.

The operation, known as the Vigilant Guard, staged several scenarios to test existing response procedures, including a hostage scenario at the State House in Augusta, according to a memo released by the Maine National Guard.

Agencies were tested to assess “their knowledge and expertise in assessing storm damages, hazmat identification, decontamination, search and rescue, patient extraction, triage, and other emergency response measures,” the memo stated.

Last week’s operation represented the first time the Vigilant Guard visited New England. With more than 3,000 members of the National Guard, local emergency responders and civilian groups, it was “the biggest operation by far,” Chief Master Sergeant Kelly Hoffses said.

Students and faculty arriving on campus early Tuesday and Wednesday found the area between Fogler and Alumni Hall cordoned off and occupied by a multitude of military and emergency vehicles in front of Holmes Hall. Affected sites included Holmes Hall, Moosehead Road, Beta Lot, Holmes Lot, Merrill Lot and parts of Fogler. A press release from the university alerted students and faculty about the closures. With the exception of certain ancillary functions at Fogler, campus traffic and activities went unhindered by the drill.

The university supplied emergency responders and the National Guard with a makeshift laboratory in Holmes Hall. The drill simulated a potential hazardous material leak reported to public safety by a janitor. Firefighters from the Orono Fire Department arrived on the scene only to determine the need for additional support. Members of the National Guard responded and arrived to cordon the area, identify the chemicals and assess the hazard.

Responders and Guard members “did a great job,” according to Wayne Maines, the UMaine director of safety and environmental management. “Everyone did what they were supposed to do.”

While responders were not tasked with the job of cleaning the chemical site, they performed extensive analysis and evaluation of the threat.

“They have to test every chemical,” Maines said.

In Holmes Hall, small vials from campus laboratories were released and mixed with refuse and household chemicals, such as Pine-Sol, which the team sifted through to sort and analyze. Some members of the team were dressed in full bio-contamination suits and could be seen entering and exiting the building all day.

Much of the drill was conducted between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5, the Orono Fire Department was joined by members of the National Guard from both the Bangor barracks and from New York. Wednesday, Nov. 6, members from the New Hampshire National Guard responded to a call for assistance in real time, arriving from the barracks in New Hampshire to the university in five hours.

With preparations in the works for more than a year, the university was approached by the Maine Emergency Management Agency with a request to incorporate the campus into the operation. Requests for comment from MEMA about the selection process were not answered.

The purpose of the Vigilant Guard is to “identify strengths and weaknesses [in emergency procedures],” Senior Master Sgt. Kelly Hoffses said. Building successful, strong relationships between local emergency responders and larger groups, like the National Guard and MEMA, is essential, according to Hoffses.

The exercises performed Tuesday and Wednesday replicated conditions that may be experienced in bio-terrorist activity, chemical leaks and spills. Such events are not rare. According to a 2010 report published by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), 194 hazardous material spills occurred in Maine in 2006. The total number of spills recorded by the DEP that year were 2,974, a majority being non-hazardous material and oil.

On July 18, 2011, more than 50 gallons of hazardous material spilled at the NAMCO facility in Westbrook, requiring the evacuation of all workers, with firefighters from six cities and members of the Presumpscot Valley Hazardous Material Team responding to neutralize the chemicals, according to an article from the Portland Press Herald.

The Associated Press reported on June 3, 2012, that a chemical spill at the QuantumClean facility in Scarborough left three workers hospitalized and required local firefighters and emergency responders to contain and neutralize the chemicals.

Just recently on Feb. 21, 2013, nearly 150 people were evacuated from Hitchner Hall after a chemical reaction caused the release of chlorine gas.

Quick responses in past incidents helped to ensure the safety of the public and minimize injuries. With the training from the Vigilant Guard operation, local groups will be better equipped to react when hazardous chemical spills occur in the future.

Maines was on the scene with members of UMPD and student security to coordinate activity and provide information to students. “It’s important for students to know the importance of the [Maine National] Guard. And they’re right here in Bangor,” Maines said.

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