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Officials react to disaster training

Every emergency preparedness drill offers the opportunity to learn something new, according to officials who attended Thursday's training exercise.

"One of the biggest problems that always exists during any real disaster or real crisis event is communication," said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp.

During Thursday's mock disaster, officials realized they had a communication problem during the initial briefing, he said. Due to the noise downtown, it was difficult to hear what was being said, he explained.

"We've already addressed that," he said.

About 20 agencies were involved in the mock disaster that simulated the response to an airliner crash in downtown Bemidji.

"I think it went very well," Hodapp said. "The neat thing about deals like this is they give us an opportunity to get all of the people together."

Each set of workers, from firefighters to medical personnel to law enforcement, has different skills, he said.

"For us, it's good to see the groups interact and see how we can use them for a particular scenario."

Officials had been planning the drill for about two years.

The airport is required to hold a full-scale drill once every three years, said Airport Manager Harold Van Leeuwen.

"For us, it was a very critical exercise," he said.

In the past, similar drills have been held at the airport. Thursday's drill was held downtown, which Van Leeuwen said worked well considering ongoing construction at the airport.

The federal Transportation Security Administration was also present for the disaster exercise. In addition to communicating with regional TSA officers, Van Leeuwen said calls were made to the TSA on a state and national level to simulate an actual disaster.

The complex exercise, he said, offered a "really good learning experience."

Van Leeuwen said he responded to the initial call from the aircraft in which it reported that it was in trouble. He had to stay in contact with the TSA "and respond to what is happening with the aircraft," which was simulated to have crashed downtown, while also managing operations at the airport.

The Bemidji Fire Department is always on hand for take-offs and landings at the airport. Once the mock crash occurred, Van Leeuwen said he released the firefighters from their airport duty to assist with the disaster scene.

Meanwhile, he would have closed the airport to aircraft since the fire department no longer was available.

"You'd have to go somewhere else," he said.

Beryl Wernberg, the 911 communications supervisor/emergency management director for the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office of Emergency Management, said the exercise went really well.

"We had good cooperation from everyone involved," she said. "We learn all kinds of things every time."

Wernberg and Hodapp both gave credit to the volunteers who endured the cold weather and took time off of work to participate.

"We so appreciate our volunteers," Wernberg said.

Hodapp said it is important to get all of the volunteers together so they can meet one another and utilize their skills.

Many are not used to seeing "horrific" sights such as dead bodies or pieces of bodies, he said. In case of a large-scale disaster, it may take a day or more before bodies are moved so that the crime scene can be analyzed, he explained.

Also, volunteers get an indication of what they could possibly be exposed to during a disaster, Hodapp said.

If it is too much for someone, he or she could be moved to a different site, he said.

"It can be traumatic," he said.