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Fake train crash to provide real lessons in Greensburg exercise

Jacob Tierney
| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 4:21 p.m.
Passengers embark on the eastbound Amtrak train in Greensburg on Friday, June 16, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Passengers embark on the eastbound Amtrak train in Greensburg on Friday, June 16, 2017.

Greensburg's leaders and first responders will gather next week to learn real lessons from a fake crisis.

The city will host a tabletop exercise Feb. 17, with officials looking over a model city as they try to cope with the consequences of a simulated train derailment.

“It gives everyone a chance to exercise their expertise in their field,” city Emergency Management Director Les Harvey said.

Greensburg police officers, firefighters, EMTs, council members and administrators will participate. Norfolk Southern Railway has been invited to take part, as have businesses and organizations near Greensburg's railroad tracks.

The exercise has been in the works for months, but a series of recent high-profile passenger train crashes have made the exercise more timely, Harvey said.

An Amtrak crash in Washington state in December killed three people. Another train carrying Republican Congress members struck a garbage truck in Virginia last week, killing the truck driver. Last week, two were killed and more than 110 were injured in South Carolina when an Amtrak train crashed at a switchyard.

The Greensburg exercise will be administered by an instructor from the Allegheny County Fire Academy at Greensburg Hose Company No. 1, McLaughlin Drive.

Greensburg officials only know the basic details — that they'll be dealing with a derailed train. They haven't been told the specifics so they'll have to react to new developments on the fly.

“We're not allowed to know what's going on,” Greensburg Fire Chief Tom Bell said.

Christopher Tantlinger, a Greensburg firefighter and Westmoreland County deputy emergency management coordinator, said similar exercises have been held in Hempfield, Salem and Ligonier, among other places.

“They learn what duties and roles each one plays in an incident like that so you kind of get a 30,000-foot view of how an incident works,” he said.

A large model city allows participants to visualize the crisis as it's happening, which adds a layer of realism absent from similar exercises, he said.

“This is something that's very different because typically you sit down with paper and work through an exercise. Here there's all the pieces and parts in model form,” he said.

The simulation not only gives each agency a chance to practice what they would do in a major emergency, it gets them in a room together, which could prove helpful in a crisis.

“It's better to meet these folks ahead of time ... so if you have a big event they're not total strangers to you,” Harvey said. “We just want to make sure that we're as prepared as we can be to do whatever is necessary and take care of the public.”

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, or via Twitter @Soolseem.

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