A major accident is likely to shut down the interchange between I-78 and I-81 on Sept. 28, but don’t worry – no one will be in danger, and traffic will not be impacted by the disaster.

That’s because the accident won’t actually occur on the highways, but in a closed room in Ono. There, public officials and emergency responders will gather to play out the scenario in real time, but with no actual consequences.

The team, some of whom will not have worked together before and possibly haven’t even met, will be putting their emergency response plans into action – theoretically speaking, of course – to look for flaws and possible improvements in their response strategies.

“Absolutely, this is the time when we can see any gaps in our plan,” Gary Verna Jr., deputy director of emergency management for the Lebanon County Department of Emergency Services, explained. “This is where we want to fail. If any incident were really to happen, we want to be ready.”

The event is called a Hazardous Materials Functional Tabletop Training Exercise, and it’s scheduled to take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, at the Ono Fire Company banquet hall at 10805 Jonestown Road.

The exercise is offered to representatives of fire, law enforcement, EMS, Red Cross, Salvation Army, PennDOT, public safety, schools, local governments, all levels of emergency management, and “others involved in preparedness,” according to a release on the event. Participants are asked to RSVP by Sept. 18 by sending an email to em@lcdes.org. Food will be served during the evening.

“There are going to be multiple agencies with multiple goals,” Verna said. “Our job at the county is to organize those goals into one overall goal that will assist everybody to achieve their objectives.”

Although this exercise deals specifically with a highway transportation incident, Verna said similar exercises in the past have focused on other scenarios. Last year, for instance, an exercise focused on a railway crash in Campbelltown.

“This exercise looks at the response and plans for an incident involving highway transportation at the 78/81 split,” he said. “It’s to gauge how prepared we are and how well our plans work in a controlled scenario.”

The accident could be something like a tractor-trailer carrying hazardous chemicals, he explained – “something that is going to cause some disruption into normal operations.”

The scenario was created by Compliance Associates Inc. There is no cost to participants, Verna said.

The release urges participants to bring “an open mind, any reference materials you would normally utilize in an Incident Response (books, manuals, computer, and programs, etc.) and your appetites for knowledge. … The program is a uniquely presented tabletop exercise, designed to be a cooperative learning experience for all private and public sector attendees.”

The scenario is “as real as it gets,” Verna said.

“Talking about it doesn’t do it justice,” he said. “You need to see how this works to see how this benefits our responders.

“Pictures are projected onto the screen so everyone can see what’s going on. People are divided into groups depending what their specialty is,” he added. “It works like an emergency operations center. And we have emergency responders who will be separated from the rest of the team to give it an added layer of realism.”

Coordinators in the room are “not going to see what’s happening on the scene, so they rely on the first responders to relay that information,” Verna explained.

Analyzing the responses of the participants will help the team “see what worked well, build upon our capabilities, and determine what resources we might need that we don’t have,” Verna, who was hired as the county’s hazmat chief in 2016, said.

State, county and local officials and emergency responders have engaged in similar tabletop opportunities periodically since 2017, he said. “”It’s important for preparedness. It’s important so we know who the players will be, so we’re not meeting each other for the first time at an incident. We know what everyone is bringing to the table … and what their objectives are.

“There are incidents happening up on the interstates all the time,” he added. “This is something we need to practice. We need to be sure our response plans are fresh and taken care of.”

Verna said he hopes for about 50 people to participate on Sept. 28. Past exercises have attracted as many as 90 participants, he said.

Despite the seriousness of the exercise, Verna admitted it’s also kind of fun.

“It does get a little stressful, but it’s a fun stressful. Nobody’s in danger, so we can have some fun with it,” he explained. “There’s some competition every time. Everyone wants to do better than the last time. … It’s it a time to be had. Everybody gets together, they work well together.”

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Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.

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