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Emergency gear display shows area readiness

Saturday, September 6, 2003

Anyone questioning how well Southeast Missouri is prepared to handle natural and man-made disasters would only have had to walk through the parking lot of the Osage Community Centre Friday afternoon to be reassured.

Dozens of Southeast Missouri's emergency agencies put their vehicles and equipment on display next to those of state and federal agencies at an equipment fair to show the public how they would react in the event of a disaster.

A strong emphasis on cross training, shared knowledge and cooperation between the region's various emergency response agencies makes Southeast Missouri one of the best prepared parts of the state to address natural and terrorist-sparked disasters, said Bob Dopp, executive director of the Missouri Emergency Response Commission, or MERC.

"I don't think the public is totally aware of the abilities of agencies down here," he said. "This kind of event alleviates that by showing them the equipment and capabilities these departments have."

The equipment on display included fire apparatus and items used to respond to hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction situations. The State Department of Health and Human Services demonstrated a device similar in appearance to an airport metal detector that detects dangerous radioactive material on a person. The U.S. Navy displayed a "rapid response skimmer" vessel that sucks up oil and chemical spills into plastic bladders.

Jackson Fire and Rescue showed its hazardous materials trailer and set up its series of bright yellow decontamination tents.

Ready for disaster

Fair participant Nathan Gordon, an operations maintenance technician with Exxon Mobil, had praise for the region's hazardous materials response teams because they truly know what they are doing during a cleanup, he said.

"Instead of feeling like the enemy is coming onto your spill site, when we see agencies like Jackson's arrive, we feel like help is coming instead of trouble," he said.

MERC strives to protect public health and the environment by assisting communities with chemical incident prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

The equipment fair was organized by MERC, with the help of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the fire and police agencies of the Bootheel, Ozark Foothills and SEMO emergency planning committees. More than three dozen visitors attended.

Participants included the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, Navy, FBI, Department of Natural Resources, State Emergency Management Agency, Missouri State Water Patrol and the Department of Health and Human Services. City firefighters came from Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Poplar Bluff, Kennett, Dexter, Sikeston, Scott City and West Plains. County firefighters came from Cape Girardeau, Butler, Dunklin, Stoddard, Scott and Perry counties.

Various charitable organizations and government agencies were also represented. Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center director Charlotte Craig was pleased by the visitor turnout.

"It was more than I thought would come," she said. "I had more than a dozen people stop by and that surprised me because public health is behind the scenes."

Dopp has organized a mock weapons of mass destruction exercise, which is taking place on the Mississippi River today. He will set off explosions to trigger the faux river disaster, to which the region's emergency teams will develop a response plan and then organize a cleanup of the spill.

"I'm using some serious stuff out there, but I'm confident these guys can handle it," he said.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160


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