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'Dirty bomb' drill simulates crisis

'Dirty bomb' drill simulates crisis

Two explosions rip through downtown Albany without warning.

Two explosions rip through downtown Albany without warning.

The first bomb detonates in a parked car on the corner of Eagle and State streets. The second blast occurs around the same time about a half mile away on Swan Street near Madison Avenue.

Emergency responders spring into action. Amid the chaos, six people are dead and another 20 injured.

That’s when authorities discover the detonations were both dirty bombs. One spreads the radioactive isotope Cezium-137 and the other Americium.

Large swaths of downtown Albany are irradiated, including the state Capitol, the county Legislature and City Hall. Rescue workers must evacuate hundreds of people to sites at the University at Albany and Columbia High School in East Greenbush, but they have to do it without many of their normal offices.

This is where preparedness comes in, explained Dennis Michalski, a spokesman for the state Emergency Management Office. More than 550 responders from roughly three dozen state and federal agencies are participating in “Empire 09,” an exercise aimed at preparing them for a “radioactive dispersal device” detonating in an urban area.

Of course, there is no real dirty bomb, nor is there even a fraction of the response that would follow such a tandem of blasts. There won’t be any hurried evacuations of buildings, and the two established shelters won’t see a single one of the 525 refugees projected.


But for the participating agencies the drill will be as close to real as they can get. Michalski said this week’s exercise will feature a number of the elements that will test the organization and communication of participating agencies.

“We test the system, test the plans in place and if something doesn’t work, then we figure out how we can do it better,” he said Tuesday during the operation’s second day. “Whatever doesn’t work you fix.”

The three-phase exercise started in mid-May and will conclude with the participating agencies organizing a long-term recovery and cleanup exercise setting in mid-June. This week’s exercise included the mock detonation Monday and moved into sampling the area around the “hot zone” Tuesday.

All week, officials from the U.S. Department of Energy will be piloting a Bell 412 helicopter throughout the area taking mock air samples to see if radioactive particles have spread beyond the initial blast areas. Periodically, the craft will fly low — at altitudes ranging from 150 feet to 1,000 feet near downtown Albany, areas of the Hudson River and western Rensselaer County.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will deploy its flying laboratory in conjunction with the exercise. The twin-engine propeller plane is equipped with “airborne spectral photometric environmental collection technology” — the aircraft is known as ASPECT — which provides first responders with information on possible chemical releases.

But perhaps the most noticeable part of the operation is occurring at the county ice rink, just a short distance away from the Albany International Airport. Emergency officials are conducting screenings, setting up decontamination tents and are even donning special white radiation suits, while scores of researchers attempt to gauge the dirty bomb’s blast radius.

“Exercises like this one being held this week in the Capital Region are critically important, because they allow us to test the functionality, capability and responsiveness of every government agency tasked with the responsibility of keeping New Yorkers safe during a disaster, whether it is man-made or natural,” said Denise O’Donnell, Gov. David Paterson’s deputy secretary for public safety.

National Guard soldiers will also play a role. On Friday, C-130 airplanes will fly more than 350 Guard soldiers from around the state into Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville.

Stratton will serve as an intake area and base for soldiers responding to an emergency in the Capital Region. During the weekend, the soldiers will practice removing victims from a destroyed building at the state fire training facility in Colonie.

“This exercise demonstrates the state’s continuing commitment to be prepared to prevent, respond and recover from potential acts of terrorism,” said Thomas Donlon, the director of the state Office of Homeland Security. “This massive drill will measure our resources and capabilities.”

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