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Lithonia’s response drill mimics real disaster

12/6/2013, 6 a.m.

The room buzzed with energy and the sounds of police radios and loudspeakers on Dec. 5 when the city of Lithonia hosted its first emergency preparedness exercise.

Lithonia Police and CSX Railroad co-hosted the five-hour exercise in the Charles Johnson Fellowship Hall at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on Highway 24.

Several agencies, including police, fire and haz-mat leaders from around metro Atlanta, plus Georgia State Police and DeKalb Board of Health experts participated in the drill, which public safety officials are convinced could save lives in a real crisis.

Lithonia Police Chief Eddie Moody said the hypothetical scenario revolves around a train that derailed near downtown Lithonia, leaking dangerous chemicals within sight of residential neighborhoods.

Capt. Xavier Todd rushes over to Clarkston Chief Christine Hudson who’s helping her Lithonia colleagues coordinate response.

“The train had four locomotives, no fatalities, nine injured, two neighborhoods evacuated so far, cars number 56 to 70 out of 100 are derailed,” he tells Hudson. “They were carrying alcohol, diesel fuel and turpentine.”

Moody said that they have seen several actual derailments across the country recently and the exercise is designed to prepare them.

“We’ve just completed our written emergency operations plan and so we brought all these agencies together to simulate our response to a situation as serious as gas tankers leaking and that sort of thing,” he said.

Moody says Lithonia is especially vulnerable to such a life-threatening scenario because of the high volume of freight traffic passing through town every day.

The Digital Library of Georgia has a mid-1970s photo of a freight train that ran off a trestle over what is now Max Cleland Boulevard. The notes don’t mention injuries or whether the train was carrying hazardous cargo. But Moody and other public safety officials see the obvious potential for disaster.

“The good thing about this exercise is that it gives us an opportunity to show how the incident command system works,” he said. “We know from past incidents that we’ll need emergency responses from everybody and this drill shows us how to come together and communicate with each other so we can assess the damage that’s been done, save lives and take care of the citizens. That’s what it’s all about.”

The training session command center was set as it would be in an actual emergency.

The room includes a control desk operator who takes in developments from the field and relays information to the right people, command desk officers and health experts who study weather conditions, and a big-screen schematic of derailed freight cars and the chemicals they carry. Logistics and planning experts huddle with their teams nearby.

Moody said the first few minutes of an emergency are critical.

“Our closest partners are DeKalb haz-mat and they would be the first group we would call,” he said. “Secondly, we would call law enforcement because we understand we have to get people out of the way and cordon off certain areas. Then we would start to evaluate the problem and how we proceed from there to take care of it.”

The city hopes to conduct another drill in 2014.