Is It Real or Memorex? Deer Park Drills Chemical Leak Scenario

It's a sign of the times, full-scale, realistic-looking disaster drills that simulate real catastrophes. In Deer Park today, officials practiced a scenario that could very well happen there, a train derailment along busy Highway 225 that releases toxic and explosive chemicals. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports.

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"Drill is on."

In a state-of-the-art emergency situation room, about a mile or so from the fictional chemical release, Deer Park city manager Ron Crabtree leads a small army of emergency officials, all huddled over computers, radios and notepads, in front of a large screen that shows the scope of the accident. Crabtree says drills like this one are an important part of the process.

"Fortunately, the real events don't occur that often and so we need to practice to be prepared for those and there's a number of things that come to play whenever we have an event like this that we need to be able to do effectively. We need to be able to communicate with a number of jurisdictions, we need to be able to make decisions quickly in response to those circumstances and the more times we've gone through this the better we're going to be able to handle the real thing when it does happen."

"North Campus, your position please." "North Campus lead is at South Kaufman and Luella." "That's clear."

The scenario included the evacuation of several nearby schools and tested the city's new radio system, known as an 800-megahertz trunk line that features a number of radio "talk groups" instead of individual channels. Deer Park emergency management coordinator Sam Pipkin says things have gotten a lot better over the past decade.

"Communications in any drill is generally a problem. We have so many different agencies involved here that that's one of the main things we're testing is our communications. We've gone to an 800 system with the fire department and the police department and the school district has our frequencies so we're able to communicate with them. Cell phones, Nextels, radios, it's better."

More than 150 emergency responders took part in the drill, from officials at the operations center to firemen and hazardous materials experts who worked on an actual train car to contain the chemical leak. Deer Park Mayor Wayne Riddle says the more realistic, the better.

"That's the whole purpose of this thing is to make it just as real as possible so we'll know how to evaluate our decision-making abilities, our abilities to respond in the ways that we should. With the rail line that runs through our city, those products are carried daily through town so this is a good practice for us."

The simulation was the largest ever done in Deer Park. You can see pictures of the emergency operations center on our website, KUHF.org.

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Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...