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Santa Barbara County Agencies Conduct Exercise Involving Deadly Hazardous Materials Release

Train-crash scenario involving mass casualties was intended to help prepare first-responders for a major disaster


Had it been a real ​situation, Thursday's "train wreck" in Goleta would have been a dramatic, life-or-death situation. 

Instead, some 150 emergency responders used the fake incident to better prepare and train for possible major disasters.

The full-scale exercise involved a deadly hazardous-materials release caused by a railroad derailment in Goleta.

“The uniqueness of an incident like this is it involved different aspects and involved various agencies,” Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Dave Zaniboni said. “It was a big incident and a learning exercise.”

The scenario for the drill involved the train hitting a car on the tracks in the Ellwood Beach area, causing the derailment of four rail cars carrying hazardous substances.

Regional hazmat teams from Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties worked together to stop a chlorine gas leak on a specialized railroad car provided by Union Pacific Railroad designed for training opportunities.

One rail car was suspected of leaking organophosphate, a deadly pesticide.

During the pretend scenario, a large toxic chlorine gas cloud plume moved across Highway 101 after the collision.

Almost immediately after the accident, the plume caused a 15-car pileup involving two Los Angeles Unified School District buses carrying 65 children.

A worker in a protective suit goes through decontamination Thursday during a multi-agency disaster drill in Gaviota. Click to view larger
A worker in a protective suit goes through decontamination Thursday during a multi-agency disaster drill in Gaviota. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

The incident tested responders with a mass-casualty situation, with the final count of 50 fatalities. 

Emergency responders were tasked with opening shelters, communicating with school districts, planning an evacuation order of 500 Ellwood School children and opening family assistance centers. 

Santa Barbara County health officials practiced initiating the public health response, aiding in the recovery, undertaking necessary actions during the emergency response such as evacuation decisions, and communicating with the local hospitals and agencies including the American Red Cross.

“I think it went well,” county Public Health Officer Dr. Charity Dean said. “The folks training are familiar with their positions — training across a variety of scenarios is a confidence booster that we work well together. We have excellent leadership.”

Six Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies participated in the drill.

“The purpose of the exercise is to get people exposed to the process and the details needed to be successful in a large-scale emergency,” South County Commander Kelly Moore said. 

Emergency personnel receive a briefing during the drill. Click to view larger
Emergency personnel receive a briefing during the drill. (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

The exercise provided an introduction and opportunity to network with fellow agencies, Moore said.

“Overall, there was a lot of learning involved, eye-opening and network building — it’s best to build relationships and networks before an actual emergency,” Moore said. 

Deputies coordinated security and evacuations, meaning they were responsible for executing the evacuations notifications, physical evacuation of people and security of the vacated area.

If the situation involved a criminal act, the Sheriff’s Department would be responsible for the investigation, Moore said.

The incident command post training site overseeing the massive operation was located in Gaviota. 

The local Incident Management Team compromised of county first responders practiced managing the situation along with an activation of the County’s Emergency Operations Center.

This team provided the initial management of incidents such as the recent Canyon, Rey and Sherpa fires.

In the afternoon, the Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management office held a virtual press conference to test its communication equipment.

Robert Lewin, director of Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management, noted the purpose of the drill and how the exercise helps prepare the county to respond to real incidents.    

“The wonderful thing about this exercise was that it involved people and management of the incident in the field, and the full operation of the County’s Emergency Operations Center,” Lewin told Noozhawk

Lewin noted that hazardous materials travel through the county every day.

“We have a major railroad and highway that runs through our county, and there’s the potential for a transportation accident,” Lewin said. “It’s rare, but it can occur. The commodities that are driven and pushed could be deadly.”

By creating a situation that examines the abilities of a response to this type of massive incident, the county can assess places for future improvements.

The drill was evaluated by several agencies, including the California Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento.

Funding for the approximately $50,000 drill was provided by a grant from the California Office of Emergency Services.

An after-action report will be created identifying strengths, and outlining weaknesses and areas of enhancement.

Lewin said he didn’t spot “any big process or necessary procedural improvements.”

Through refinement, Lewin said, the groups will fine-tune emergency plans.

“We are going to look at the lessons learned and try to refine the little things to make it better,”  Lewin said. “In emergency management, it’s about the details. That can cause mistakes. We have a good mutual-aid system, and ability to mobilize our teams and emergency operations center.” ​

Numerous organizations participated, including the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, the Montecito Fire Protection District, the Ventura County Fire Department and other area fire agencies, the California Highway Patrol, American Medical Response, area hospitals, the Santa Barbara Unified School District, the county Air Pollution Control District and several cities.

“It was a good day,” Lewin said. “This is a great opportunity to exercise something that has the potential to occur.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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