Wednesday April 17, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- How would Vermont emergency officials respond to an incident like the one Monday in Boston, where two explosions killed three people and wounded more than 130 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon?

In a case where a bomb has detonated, the response from local police, fire departments, and rescue squads would not be much different from what was seen in Boston, said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, who is also the town’s public safety director.

"You would see our people running into the scene while other people were trying to leave," Doucette said. The police department has seven people trained to render "tactical emergency first aid" to people who are critically injured beyond normal first aid needs. Local emergency agencies all have response plans in place to deal with scenarios where many people have been injured, he said. They train together periodically and are in communication with statewide emergency response groups.

Southwestern Vermont Health Care Spokesman Kevin Robinson said the hospital also drills for "mass casualty" incidents and practices how to treat the most critically wounded first before getting them transportation either by air or ambulance to Albany Medical Center in New York or Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, which are level one trauma centers capable of handling the most serious of injuries.

The hospital as well as the local fire departments are also trained to decontaminate people who may be covered in a hazardous material and are in need of emergency care. Robinson gave the example of a truck hauling pesticides or fertilizer tipping over and the material getting on people, but said by far the most common form of decontaminating comes from washing people who have been sprayed with pepper spray.

If a bomb were to be found unexploded, Doucette said the area around it would be evacuated and the Vermont State Police Bomb Squad would be summoned.

Doucette said the only time anything like what happened in Boston occured in Bennington was in 1991 when Elizabeth Teague, who was 30 at the time, shot and killed her supervisor at the Eveready Battery Co. and wounded three others. Doucette said Teague also tried to detonate explosive devices at the factory, but they did not go off.

Vermont State Maj. Walter Goodell, who oversees the field force divisions of the VSP, said the bomb squad is made of regular troopers with special training who are scattered throughout the state but are primarily assigned in the northern region. The closet bomb squad member to Bennington is stationed in Rutland, he said.

Any police commander in Vermont can request the bomb squad’s aid, he said. The closest members to the incident set aside their normal duties and either go directly to the scene or head to one of two mobile command trucks, which they then take where it is needed. One truck is in Williston and the other in the Newport area.

The VSP’s other special teams, which include hostage negotiators, divers, and crime scene searchers to name a few, are all structured similarly, and if the situation calls for it will be deployed together. Goodell said there is also a special communications team which often accompanies other units.

Lt. Paul White, commander of the State Police barracks in Middlesex, is the bomb squad’s leader. White said the squad is sent to between 30 and 40 incidents a year. The majority of them involve explosives found by residents. Years ago it was common for people to possess dynamite to be used on their property for things like stump removal, White said. Often old dynamite will be found and the bomb squad will be called to dispose of it. Sometimes old grenades, kept as war souvenirs are recovered.

The second most common type of problem is suspicious packages. White said people should be wary of packages they did not expect to receive that appear damaged or are oddly heavy. If they emit strange noises or odors or contain exposed wires, that can be cause for suspicion, according to White. Often suspicious packages have excessive postage and are addressed quite specifically to individuals in an effort to make sure they reach an intended target.

"We do get cases of people with too much time on their hands who build something they don’t know how to get rid of," he said.

While they have not been asked, the Vermont squad could possibly be contacted to help in Boston to relieve the bomb squads now there.

White said the training and equipment is all the same. The VSP squad has armored bomb suits and two robots.

"We try to do as much as possible remotely," he said. The robots are equipped with cameras, speakers, and can sense dangerous chemicals and radiation. They can also move objects and using a focused jet of water damage or destroy devices. White said two bomb detecting dogs are also available to the squad and are used to sweep areas where large crowds will be. He said presidential visits and the like bring their own security details but the VSP group will sweep an area where a dignitary plans to speak. They also patrol the Vermont capitol building in Montpellier whenever a crowd is expected.

White said investigations surrounding explosives are not handled by the squad, which primarily deals with the immediate threat they pose. If a bomb were determined to be related to terrorism, the Federal Bureau of Investigations would take over the investigation, he said.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.