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GBI conducts 'real-life' disaster drill at AMS

Jamie Jones, a special agent-in-charge with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, held a flashlight in a cave at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was monitoring his subordinates.

He and his group were part of a force of several hundred state and local public-safety personnel at AMS Tuesday, working through a training exercise focused on learning how to respond to major disasters.

As Johnson navigated his way through a sea of mannequins, some with missing limbs, he emphasized that the exercise is necessary, because "anything could happen anywhere."

"We're simulating a suicide bombing in a tunnel," he said. "Once the survivors have been rescued and removed, we're left with the deceased, as well as body parts of the deceased.

"The GBI, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Natural Resources form what's known as a Body Recovery Team," he said. "So, that's our role, to come in after a disaster and recover the bodies."

Tuesday's training exercise is known, officially, as a Full-Scale Practical Exercise in Mass Fatality Recovery and Explosive Ordnance Disposal, and the event involved the GBI, Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the GBI's Bomb Disposal Team, canine search and rescue groups, and the Henry County Fire Department.

Rusty Andrews, deputy director of investigations for the GBI, said the exercise is designed to test the various responses of law enforcement and fire-rescue agencies, to a mass disaster and point out methods for improving those responses.

"The mass disaster [today] is being caused by a series of bombs ... set off at different times around Atlanta Motor Speedway, and all of the ensuing issues that come along with that," said Andrews. "... Suicide bombers, it includes bombs in packages, and having to clear a whole bunch of other packages that have been dropped on the ground by people fleeing the scene," he explained. "So, we're exercising all of the capacity of our bomb-disposal unit by doing that." Another objective of the drill, he continued, is to gauge the capabilities of the Body Recovery Team, which includes personnel from the GBI, the Department of Natural Resources' law enforcement and wildlife resources divisions, the Georgia Department of Corrections and GEMA's K-9 team.

"Once the bomb-disposal problems have been cleared, then the body-recovery team will go in, and they'll actually do a systematic recovery of the victims of the disaster," said Andrews.

The GBI developed the exercise following an investigation, in 2002, into the Tri-State Crematory in Walker County, Ga. Investigators found hundreds of bodies, which were dumped at the crematory site, according to Andrews.

"What we realized was that we didn't have a group of people that were trained in the mass recovery of human remains," said Andrews. "So, we got together with our partners — GEMA, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Corrections — because we realized that the GBI can't do this alone. We came up with a multi-agency team that would respond and assist with the recovery of human remains."

Andrews added that the choice of AMS as a location for the drill, means the track is "at no greater risk" than any other sporting venue for a bomb disaster.

"Any of these venues could be potential terrorist targets when they have a capacity crowd," he said. "So, we try to swap training around, and train at various venues."

GBI Spokesman John Bankhead agreed that regular drills of disaster scenarios help to sharpen the abilities of various law enforcement agencies. "You prepare for the worst, and hope for the best," said Bankhead. "You have to train personnel to react to a mass disaster, and you also have to have a practical exercise to make a determination, if the reaction of personnel is correct, and the equipment they're using is up to speed.

"You don't want to have to get into a real-life situation, where you haven't used that equipment and find a glitch," he said. "If a real situation arises — we hope it doesn't — we'll be ready."

David Rhodes, who served as an incident commander for GEMA's team at the event, said agencies participating in the exercises not only learn valuable skills, but learn more about their colleagues as well. "One of the biggest benefits is to get all the people together, so you learn to put a face with names and agencies, so that, in the future when you get a call, you're not meeting for the first time when there's an emergency," said Rhodes.

Interim Henry County Fire Chief Bill Lacy is a planning section chief of the Area 7 All Hazards Incident Management Team, which covers metropolitan Atlanta. "When a disaster goes down," he said, "it taxes your immediate resources. But in an incident like this, Henry County would probably do most of the emergent response and handle most of the emergent activities. We would transport and triage patients. The long-term care of an incident, as it goes on for days and weeks and months, obviously taxes the local resources beyond their capability."