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Mitch Smith/MEDILL

Members of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force train Thursday in Glenview. The exercise, part of two days of response training, simulated a real emergency.

Preparing for the worst

by Mitch Smith
Oct 25, 2012


Mitch Smith/MEDILL

Emergency workers train for disaster response at exercises Thursday in Glenview.

Xamb the German Shepherd, with an American flag bandanna knotted around his neck and a blue safety vest hugging his torso, stood between his handler and a massive pile of twisted concrete and rubble.

Someone was trapped under the debris and needed the jet-black dog to find him with emergency speed.

“I can search this with him in 10 minutes,” said Des Plaines Fire Capt. Scott Peirson, Xamb’s handler. He added that the dog can sniff out surviving victims within a 10-foot area.

Thankfully, the "victim" was an actor in a staged disaster. Thursday’s operation was part of an elaborate two-day exercise to train Cook County emergency responders from dozens of agencies.

There had been no tornado, no flood and no terrorist attack to cause the wreckage. But if one of those emergencies occurs close to home, drill organizers said Thursday’s preparation will allow rescue workers to respond effectively.

The first responders, mostly police officers and firefighters from suburban departments, got notice of the training on Wednesday and reported Thursday morning to a base five miles from the Glenview training site. There, they checked in and received equipment before being bused to the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy, a high-security menagerie of red trailers, boats and helicopters that looks like the backlot for a Hollywood action film.

At the staging area, four rescue helicopters stood at the ready while firefighters unloaded a trailer and police officers strategized in a huddle. What looked like an acre of debris was riddled with an overturned school bus, torn up rebar and splintered concrete piping.

Rescue workers climbed through the piping and drilled through the piles. A small brown shack with much of its roof ripped off had a "V" painted on the front, along with the word “VICTIM” to mark sites where people had already been found.

While the circumstances were exceptional, the training itself was rooted in the same procedures an officer or firefighter would use each day on the job.

“Everything we do is based on a normal daily operating procedures,” said Jay Reardon, a retired fire chief who is president of the state’s Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, which helps coordinate multi-department responses when tragedy strikes.

The training site was set up as if it were a field operations center in an actual emergency. Reporters and other visitors had their driver’s licenses scanned in a mobile trailer, where a computer printed out ID badges with barcodes that would be scanned when a person entered or exited the site.

By making training sessions as realistic as possible, Reardon said emergency efforts are more likely to succeed.

“If you don’t practice and you don’t drill,” he said, “it’s not going to work when the need arises.”

That practice is especially vital for service animals, Peirson said. He and his dog train regularly, but usually do so without Thursday’s atmosphere of buzzing saws and firefighters darting around.

“It exposes (dogs) to all the hustle and bustle,” Peirson said. “They have to be able to ramp up and work despite all the noise. It’s an exposure thing.”

The drill allowed Xamb and Peirson to work with first responders from Skokie, Elgin and other towns. That sort of interagency cooperation is crucial, said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who toured the site and spoke with emergency workers.

“We’re trying to build partnerships so our first responders, and ultimately our residents, are prepared if a disaster should occur,” she said. “We’re now able to work as one team.”