Imagine that dangerous VX nerve agent spills during the destruction of the chemical weapon at the U.S. Army depot in Newport in western Indiana. A southeasterly wind carries the corrosive gas toward Clay County, then into Putnam County.
While the idea of hazardous material fallout isn't something most people want to think about, it is something the county officials must plan for, Putnam County Emergency Management Agency Director Kim Hyten said.
And as fire, police and other emergency responders would prepare to leave their homes in such a situation, Hyten said they need to do so with the proper protection so they can return to their families.
That is part of the reason why Putnam County EMA officials have decided to order a number of advanced pieces of protection and chemical testing equipment with approximately $93,000 worth of Department of Homeland Security grant money awarded to the county.
The funds will go toward buying several items including natural gas detectors, "fit testers" which determine whether a fire or police oxygen mask is air-tight, mapping systems for police and firefighters and personal protection equipment such as anti-chemical suits for workers who respond to hazardous materials emergencies including semi-trailer spills on the highway and methamphetamine lab cleanup.
Some of the most advanced technology the county plans to spend the money on will include equipment to test for the presence of radiological substances and weapons of mass destruction.
While the presence of such threats seems highly out of the ordinary for the area, Hyten said the relative location of Putnam County to higher target areas such as Newport, Terre Haute and Indianapolis makes the precautions necessary. He also pointed to the presence of chemical substances in laboratories at DePauw as well as the possible foreign and domestic terrorism threats brought by visiting dignitaries to the university as more cause for the extra preparedness.
"Even though we're Putnam County, rural America, doesn't mean a series of (serious emergency) events couldn't take place here," Hyten said. "We have to plan for the worst-case scenario. And, we have to have the best resources during that scenario."
Also, all the emergency equipment in the county is bought without knowing for sure that it will be used, Hyten said.
"We buy ambulances, but we hope we don't have to use them," he said.
Some questions have also been raised as to whether the money could be used to purchase more tornado sirens. However, the EMA director said he does not feel that is the best use of the funds.
For one, he said, almost all of the sirens in the county are currently maintained and insured by townships, towns, The City of Greencastle or private organizations. To take on that maintenance and insurance would be an enormous financial burden, he said. He also added that sirens can only be heard outdoors.
"The county is 520 square miles. We can't put sirens on the whole county," he said.
A better option for severe weather advanced warning and protection, Hyten said, would be for the county to invest in a "reverse 911" program.
In reverse 911, those residents potentially effected by a tornado warning, chemical spill or other severe emergency would be automatically alerted by phone at either a land-line or wireless-phone number voluntarily submitted to Putnam County 911.
Hyten said he hopes to pay for such a program locally through the Hazardous Waste Fund. Once begun, reverse 911 would be maintained with 911 fees at about $5,000 per year.
Although plans call for the Homeland Security grant equipment to be dispersed throughout the county, Hyten said he may have to hold some of it back from some departments.
At the close of 2005, county fire, police and health agencies were required to have at least begun training with the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
NIMS is a kind of nationally recognized chain of command for emergency situations. It stipulates how back-up supplies, work crews and funds are distributed during a disaster.
In order for the county to receive certain kinds of funding for training, prevention and even after an incident, every local government and emergency group has to have begun the NIMS training process.
With that the threat of not receiving needed money, Hyten said at a local Emergency Management Agency meeting Thursday that he would have no choice but to hold back the technology from area agencies which have not started with NIMS compliance.
"We just don't give them the equipment," he said.