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First Responders Practice for Disaster

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- Emergency responders swarmed the Cedar Rapids Post Office on Thursday reacting to a simulated anthrax contamination event. Of course, it was a drill. But authorities say if something like that happens in Eastern Iowa it’s best to be prepared.

Anthrax, a disease caused by a form of powdered bacteria, is something that hasn’t gotten much attention lately. In 2001, though, five people died and 17 got sick from anthrax bacteria-tainted letters sent through the mail.

After those terror attacks in 2001, every mail processing and sorting facility, including the four in Iowa, got equipment to test the air for any sign of a biological hazard in the mail. But equipment alone wouldn’t mean much if there wasn’t a response plan in place to react. So, drills like the one in Cedar Rapids on Thursday are a requirement. In fact, every mail processing center in the U.S. goes through a full scale reaction drill once every three years.

Bradley Schetzsle, who was overseeing the drill for the United States Postal Service (USPS), said such rehearsals are a benefit both to the postal service and local authorities.

“We work with our local first responders in testing any type of health hazards. Their response times, our communications — we look for any type of gaps in plans,” Schetzsle said.

As many as 50 first responders, including fire, police and even public health took part in the joint drill. For anthrax contamination, the first response is to isolate anybody who may have had contact with the bacteria. The next step is to bring those people through decontamination facilities. Fire crews set up portable shower facilities where haz-mat suited workers made sure nothing escaped cleaning or bagging. A dozen volunteers played the part of victims.

John Jensen, acting Cedar Rapids Fire Department captain, said without realistic drills, it’s impossible to fully practice what you learn.

“We’ve never had an incident. But this gives us an opportunity to test our resources, make sure everything is in good working order. It just gives our people a good refresher,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the scenario here was anthrax contamination but the general response and decontamination procedures would apply to dealing with many types of hazards. Judges viewed the activity and will score the results. First responders will just that information to do better the next time.

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