Fire Department hosts regional search and rescue drill

Video by Lorena Mejia/The Signal

Southern California Urban Search and Rescue teams gathered at the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Del Valle Training Center in Castaic this week for a joint training exercise called “Southern Wind.”

The three-day exercise simulated the detonation of a radiological dispersal device, or “dirty bomb.”

“They’re taking the simulation of a collapsed structure and adding a radiological element to it,” said Scott Elliott, L.A. County Fire spokesman.

The full-scale drill used models from the Northridge earthquake combined with what responders learned from incidents in Haiti and Mexico to create a scenario that will prepare the state’s USAR task forces and evaluate their readiness.

An Urban Search & Rescue team from San Diego wearing hazmat/radiation suits search for survivors during an LACoFD Full Scale Search & Rescue Drill with Regional Fire Agencies held at L.A. County Fire Dept. Del Valle Training Center in Castaic on Thursday. Dan Watson/The Signal

“What this does for our USAR teams is allows for that next level of skill to come out,” said David Richardson, chief deputy of emergency operations for L.A. County Fire. “It allows the Southern California teams to train, share thoughts and ideas, collaborate, but most importantly to build relationships so when the real event does come, there is no guessing, and they are able to work seamlessly together.”

During the exercise, USAR teams from the L.A. County Fire Department, Orange County Fire Authority, Riverside Fire Department and San Diego Fire-Rescue Department worked together with conditions as close to real life as possible, including real samples of radiation and live victims in the piles of rubble.

“Any time you start talking about radioactivity, the public and even the responders get very nervous,” said Chuck Tobias, assistant chief of special operations for California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). “To overcome some of the untrue concerns that exist, we’re actually training the responders as to the real effects of radiation, the levels they can be exposed to without harm and how to operate in a scenario where you have to provide for the safety of the public in a timely manner.”

An Urban Search & Rescue team wearing hazmat/radiation suits from San Diego search for survivors during an LACoFD Full Scale Search & Rescue Drill with Regional Fire Agencies held at L.A. County Fire Dept. Del Valle Training Center in Castaic on Thursday. Dan Watson/The Signal

This exercise was created after then-Gov. Jerry Brown asked if responders were prepared for a dirty bomb in California.

“The obvious answer is, ‘We don’t know, we’ve never tested it,’” Tobias said. “Nowhere in the nation have first responders tried to evaluate their response capabilities to a radiological dispersion device.”

So, last year, Cal OES, with the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, held the first of these readiness programs in Northern California to begin training for a terrorism-related event such as this.

“The take-away today really is there will be lessons learned,” Elliott said, “so they can improve for the next instance.”

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About the author

Emily Alvarenga

Emily Alvarenga

Emily Alvarenga covers features and community for The Signal. She's new to the paper and Santa Clarita, but hasn't moved far from her hometown of Temecula, California. Emily graduated from San Diego State University in 2017 and has been writing and reporting since high school.