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Exercise to ready area for dealing with massive earthquake

The rare earthquake that rumbles beneath the Buffalo Niagara region is hardly noticeable, but in November authorities will conduct a joint emergency operation that assumes a devastating temblor has struck the area.

The simulated event is designed to prepare civilian and military personnel for operating jointly under the most trying conditions, providing them with a working script in case a major disaster -- man-made or natural -- hits the region.

"It's really going to be boots on the ground. We're going to have troops not only from the New York National Guard, but they're coming in from Vermont and Pennsylvania and other areas," said Lt. Col. Paul Fanning, National Guard spokesman. "This is a chance for us to work shoulder to shoulder with civil authorities."

Hundreds of emergency responders from Buffalo, Erie and Niagara counties and Southern Ontario will participate in what organizers say will include a specially constructed debris pile at a former City of Tonawanda factory site, helicopter medical evacuations, and search and rescue drills.

Because of the extensive operation, which will begin Nov. 1 and continue through Nov. 6, organizers want to alert the public on what to expect.

"You will see our aircraft and vehicles out, and we want to make sure the public knows this is a training exercise," Fanning said. "We're doing everything we can so that it doesn't complicate rush hours and school bus traffic."

It will also provide an opportunity for local emergency responders to test the region's Tactical Inter-Operable Communications plan and updates being made to Erie County's all-hazards, comprehensive emergency response plan, according to Gregory W. Skibitsky, the county's commissioner of emergency services.

"The ability to share information and communicate with partners is critical in helping mitigate disasters," Skibitsky said.

Funds to pay for local costs will come from a $750,000 federal homeland security grant that was awarded by the state Department of Homeland Security.

National Guard members, who are calling the exercise "Vigilant Guard," will launch their efforts from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

In addition, the Erie County Emergency Operations Center in Cheektowaga, as well as the state's Emergency Operations Center and the National Guard's Joint Operation Center, both in Albany, will be open.

The rubble pile will be constructed at the nearly demolished Spaulding Fibre facility on Wheeler Street in the City of Tonawanda.

"There will be role playing of victims who will have to be rescued and decontaminated at the site in special tents," Fanning said.

Civilian emergency responders, he added, will have the chance to "practice their emergency response plans and see if they meet what they think they need or [have to be] changed and improved."

While the main venue will be on Wheeler Street, the exercise will use other sites throughout Erie and Niagara counties.

"We'll be assessing bridges, roadways and other critical infrastructure that could potentially be impacted from the results of an earthquake," Skibitsky said.

In some ways, the different operations will mirror the cooperation between local authorities and the National Guard during the surprise storm nearly three years ago.

"The whole theme is to work with the National Guard, deploying and coordinating much like the October 2006 storm when the Guard was deployed," he said.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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