Home News Local News Roswell, Chaves County take part in WIPP exercises

Roswell, Chaves County take part in WIPP exercises

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Roswell and Chaves County law enforcement and emergency first responders teamed up with state and federal agencies as well as several local actors to take part in a WIPP transportation-incident training exercise Friday at the former Roswell municipal airport. The scenario acted out involved an accident between a pickup, an SUV and a WIPP truck. (Alex Ross Photo)

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Flashing lights from police cars and wailing sirens cut through the fog Friday morning as a host of local, county, state and federal agencies took part in an exercise to gauge how well they would respond to a radiological incident.

Roswell and Chaves County law enforcement, medical and fire personnel took part in the first of two days of Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) exercises pertaining to the transport of radioactive materials.

Eastern New Mexico Medical Center, Lovelace Regional Hospital, La Familia Care Center in Dexter, and the New Mexico Rehabilitation Center also participated, according to a news release about the exercises.

The exercise funded by the U.S. Department of Energy involves staged scenarios.

Eletha Trujillo, program manager and task force coordinator at the New Mexico Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources Department said the exercise is meant to train first responders in communities along U.S. Highway 285 also known as the WIPP corridor, named after the repository of transuranic waste located just outside of Carlsbad.

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“We want to ensure the community that our responders along the WIPP corridor are trained, they are prepared, that they’ve got the resources, materials and tools they need involving a WIPP truck,” she said.

Friday’s scenario involved a two-vehicle accident between a pickup truck and an SUV acting as a pharmaceutical vehicle with radioactive material spilling out of the back of it. In the scenario, a WIPP truck comes upon the accident running over debris, which immediately puts the WIPP truck out of service.

In addition to first responders, actors from New Mexico Military Institute’s Youth ChalleNGe acted as victims and bystanders in the accident.

To enhance the realism, a medical isotope — provided by Cardinal Health and handled by a radiological safety officer from the New Mexico Department of Environmental Protection— was in the SUV.

Trujillo said that while an accident involving a WIPP truck is possible, a situation with medical isotopes transported in a vehicle that gets in an accident is a scenario officers and emergency first responders are likely to encounter.

Decontamination, cutting clothing off “victims” and scanning the scene to measure levels of radiation and attending to the injured are some of the activities that first responders take part in during the simulation.

A level-six inspector, meanwhile, scans and surveys the WIPP truck to ensure it is safe to drive after running over the debris.

The exercises test the response from the scene of the accident to the hospital. Trujillo said another crop of actors would be at Eastern and Lovelace hospitals to test their capabilities.

The test at the hospitals would also include a scenario involving a surge of people. Oftentimes, when people see a WIPP truck or something related to radiological contamination, they panic and head to the hospital on their own.

“So the hospital, it gives them an opportunity to exercise their decom (decontamination) process as well,” Trujillo said.

After the exercises, participants and agency heads then meet for “a hot wash” where agency heads and first responders access what went right and what can be improved upon. Eventually, it will all be compiled in a report from the Department of Homeland Security.

Chaves County Sheriff Britt Snyder said the exercise allows agencies to see how they work together — something that is important.

“It’s amazing how many resources we have to bring in for something like this, especially something involving a WIPP truck. WIPP shipments have been going to Carlsbad for many, many years and it is important we be able to deal with and handle those situations,” he said.

“Those are things we have to prepare for because as first responders, it is important that you recognize some of the hazards before you drive into those situations,” Snyder continued.

Trujillo said the most difficult part of conducting such an exercise in a community is the frequent buy-in from communities, especially smaller ones, whose police and first responders often are dealing with many real-life concerns.

“They are dealing with fires and floods and all the other stuff and training requirements they have,” she said.

Trujillo had ample praise for the support she received from Roswell and Chaves County. She said local and county officials were asked in December if they wanted to take part in a WIPP exercise. The planning then got underway in January.

She said the meetings were to plan the exercises, and at them, all agencies were well-represented and eager to participate.

“They have just really set the bar for us with what we want a local jurisdiction to do,” Trujillo said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.