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Terror drill centers on rapid response

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 1:45 a.m.

With crimson and black blisters scouring her face and arms, Danielle McMerron resembled a victim of a terrorist attack.

However, she was just trying to help about 20 regional law-enforcement and emergency-response agencies better prepare for one.

In makeup designed to feign a multitude of injuries, McMerron, 22, of Hunker, and 13 others served as volunteer victims for a weapons of mass destruction training exercise held Saturday in West Newton by the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety and the Region 13 Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The drill, called Operation Twisted Rail, involved a staged attack by five mock terrorists on a train traveling through the borough from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, said Richard Matason, the county public safety director. A large tour bus was used in place of the train car.

"In the exercise, what happened was two terrorists got off the vehicle with explosives, and one of the bombs blew up," Matason said. "There were still two terrorists on the vehicle with simulated nerve and blister agent grenades."

The drill centered around first responders evacuating the vehicle's passengers and treating them appropriately.

It was unique in that it focused not so much on preventing the initial calamity but in figuring out how to treat and protect people and clean up the damage in the hours that followed, said county department of public safety spokesman Daniel Stevens.

The rescue phase included the testing of newly developed technological equipment, such as breathing apparatuses and boots resistant to the most acrid odors and chemicals.

Officials of Region 13 and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency also observed how responders analyzed the situation and made appropriate decisions.

Because the chemical spill was classified as a blister and nerve agent, crews were expected to call in Hazmat before venturing near it, which they did.

"If the first responder responds to a scene, we don't want another casualty," said James Joseph, PEMA deputy director.

Unknown to the responders, a supposed burn victim who dashed from the attacked vehicle was a terrorist, Matason said.

"It was their job to figure that out through investigation, which they did," Matason said.

Such exercises aim to build a stronger network of contacts in the state's counterterrorism field, said Tim Baughman, PEMA western area director.

"These events make the response to real events so much smoother because these people are not meeting and working with each other for the first time," said Baughman, who oversees terrorism security in 24 counties, including Westmoreland.

And after last week's bombings in London, the drill seemed most appropriate.

"It just makes it so much more timely," said Mary Popovich, borough councilwoman and public safety chairperson.

Firefighters from West Newton were joined by the North Huntingdon and Elizabeth Township fire departments and Rostraver/West Newton Ambulance Service.

Also involved were officials of the FBI, the domestic security office of the Pennsylvania State Police, Civil Air Patrol, Allegheny County Health Department and Bomb Squad, Metropolitan Medical Response System and Douglas Education Center, along with state Sen. Bob Regola, R-Hempfield Township.

While considered productive, the drill uncovered communication issues between various responders, several participants said.

"This is probably one of the best regions in the state (for counterterrorism activity)," Joseph said.

Matason agreed.

"We're nationally recognized by FEMA, by the FBI and by the Department of Homeland Security," Matason said.

Planning for the drill began in November, and many meetings were held to organize it. A Region 13 training grant covered the $15,000 cost, Stevens said.

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