'Largest ever' emergency drill to test Vermont responders


COLCHESTER >> A series of simulated incidents over the course of nine days this summer will test Vermont's emergency responders.

The event, called Vigilant Guard, will take place in 50 places around the state and involve some 5,000 emergency responders, according to the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, part of the Department of Public Safety.

State law enforcement, multiple state agencies, 16 hospitals, the Burlington International Airport, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Vermont National Guard and others will participate in Vigilant Guard, which will begin July 25.

Several municipalities — including Colchester, Guilford, Lyndon, Newport, Wilmington and Windsor — are also part of the plan.

At a news conference Wednesday at Camp Johnson, the Vermont National Guard base in Colchester, Gov. Peter Shumlin invoked the experience of the state during Tropical Storm Irene in discussing the significance of emergency response training.

Shumlin stood in front of a simulated disaster site featuring concrete rubble, upside-down cars and shipping containers, which will be used for practicing urban rescues.

DEMHS Director Christopher Herrick speaks about Vigilant Guard. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

"It's important when we're trying to save lives and deal with crises to have rehearsed, to have figured out who does what when, to have figured out how we minimize loss of life and loss of property," Shumlin said.

He and others said Vermonters are likely to see some activity during the course of the drill, including movement of the Vermont National Guard by land and air.

State officials characterized the event as the "largest ever emergency exercise" in Vermont. It has been in the works for three years. The federal government, which requires such tests of the state's emergency response system, is footing the estimated $570,000 bill, according to Christopher Herrick, director of the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

Herrick said he could not share many details of the event, in part because he does not know the details, but that simulations will test cybersecurity as well as urban search and rescue.

The response effort will be headquartered at an operations center in Waterbury, he said. It will test the coordination of responses across multiple agencies.

"Vigilant Guard is designed to challenge us, and when I say 'us' I mean the entire state, to handle situations with which we may be familiar and, more importantly, those we haven't seen," Herrick said.

Organizers of the simulation are seeking 200 actors to participate in the drill to "inundate" hospitals and emergency shelters around the state to test preparedness, Herrick said.

Evaluators and monitors will be on site to observe and gather data from each simulation, he said. Agencies will analyze the results and draw on them to make changes to the system.

If at any point during the simulation there is an actual disaster, the exercise will be halted, Herrick said.

Health Commissioner Harry Chen said he expects "nearly every" employee of the department will be involved with the simulation in one way or another.

"This is an important exercise because we must be ready for anything, whether it be a natural disaster like (Tropical Storm) Irene, an actual disease threat like H1N1, a cyberattack, or any combination of these catastrophes. We must have a system ready to respond immediately and effectively to any threat of the health and lives of Vermonters and visitors," Chen said.

Some secondary roads in certain locales may be temporarily closed, but detours will be made clear, according to Jessica Stolz, of the emergency management division.

Planners for the event have contracted with local and regional businesses for services during it, according to Stolz.

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, a private business, is helping to organize the evaluators for the event, and Norwich University is assisting with the cybersecurity element. There are also contracts with local food providers for meals and with hotels to house personnel coming to the state for the event, she said.


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