County emergency responders prepare for the worst

Wailing sirens blasted from the E.C. Gaston Electric Generating Plant Tuesday morning as uniformed firefighters, law enforcement officers and other emergency responders rushed through the plant’s front gate.

Hazardous material disposal and decontamination crews representing seven Shelby County cities joined Alabama Power disaster crews as a booming electronic voice urged plant employees to evacuate the premises.

It may sound like a scene from a Hollywood action thriller or a disaster-themed television show, but the events were a reality Tuesday for dozens of county emergency responders.

The group staged a large-scale chlorine spill at the plant to test the county’s emergency response plan. If inhaled, chlorine vapors can cause severe respiratory damage, eye and skin irritation and death.

“It’s important to do this now just to be prepared and learn lessons in a controlled environment,” explained Pelham Fire Department Lt. Ricky King, a member of the city’s hazmat team. “We are handling today as if it were the real deal.”

Drill organizers at the Alabama Power-owned electric plant made a strong attempt to make the scenario as close to the “real deal” as possible, explained Alabama Power spokeswoman Keisa Sharpe.

“We are just serving as the host for this drill today,” Sharpe said. “It not only allows Shelby County emergency responders to test their disaster readiness, but it also gives Alabama Power disaster mitigators a chance to work with them to strengthen their own response plan.”

In the event of a real disaster at the plant, the facility’s location could spell a lengthy response time for agencies in Alabaster, Pelham and other North Shelby communities.

While waiting for county responders to arrive on the scene, the Alabama Power Disaster Mitigation Team would work to evacuate the plant and ensure a safe perimeter around the hazard, Sharpe said before the drill began.

“The plant uses chlorine to disinfect its cooling water, and there are several ways one of those 1-ton chlorine cylinders could rupture and cause a hazardous situation,” King said. “We are just simulating one of the ways it could rupture today.

“The Pelham Fire Department has the county’s main hazmat team, and Alabaster has the county’s main decontamination unit,” King added. “But Chelsea, Harpersville, Montevallo, Calera and Columbiana also have decontamination units. That’s important, because they could help a lot during the 45 minutes it could take Pelham or Alabaster to get down here.”

King said Shelby County emergency responders have placed more emphasis on preparing for disasters since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We’ve definitely increased our training since 9/11, especially when dealing with weapons of mass destruction and large-scale disasters,” King added. “If something happened at this plant, there is a 5-mile protection radius. That would definitely have a large impact on Wilsonville, so it’s important that we already know what to do.”