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Exercise tests agencies in mass casualty scenario
1 mannequin was rigged to sink in 20 to 30 feet of water
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Red smoke, which represents plumes of smoke and fire, fill the air Wednesday during Operation Joint Response on Lake Lanier at Van Pugh Park North. The response constituted a multi-agency, mass casualty search and rescue exercise. The exercise promotes interagency cooperation in the event of a large scale water-borne accident on Lake Lanier. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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By: Bill Murphy

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FLOWERY BRANCH —A houseboat collides with another boat on Lake Lanier, about 200 yards from shore.

An explosion happens and soon, both vessels are sinking,
It's a nightmare scenario - not just for the parties involved but for emergency responders.

It's also not a common occurrence, but it can happen, and that's what Wednesday's Operation Joint Response at Van Pugh Park North was all about.

"As far as we know, this is the first time there's been a mass casualty ... exercise on Lake Lanier," said Steve Riggan of U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 29 and the event's lead organizer.

The drill began about 9:15 a.m. at the West Hall park and ended about 12:30 p.m. It involved numerous state, local and federal agencies, including Hall County Fire Services and the Hall County Sheriff's Office.

It began with a distress call from the scene.

"My houseboat's sinking, and there's a fire," said the "caller," one of the event's participants. "A couple of people are burned, and there are people in the water. We need help."

The agencies already were mobilized at the park, which is at the end of Gaines Ferry Road.

Emergency responders knew the general situation, but they didn't know other specific details, including conditions of the "victims," or dummies put together using floating objects, until they reached them.

Each victim had a tag attached giving a name and seriousness of the condition.

One mannequin had been rigged to sink in 20 to 30 feet of water, the depth in that part of the lake, to simulate a drowning. A Hall County Dive Team member went after that victim in a recovery effort, as opposed to a rescue, when survival chances are greater.

In all, there were 20 victims, including one who drowned.

Event participants also simulated a fire at the crash scene.

The exercise, which closed the park for the day, was carried out largely to "understand how all these agencies can effectively communicate together during an actual emergency," Riggan said.

It's also important "for all the individuals involved in this to meet ... and know each other, because there's nothing like personal contact and knowledge when you need assistance," he added.

"The third objective is to practice on-water rescue skills, as well as triage of the victims themselves."

Agencies have expressed a concern about "firefighting capabilities" on the lake because of the lack of a vessel specifically for that purpose, Riggan said.

"Right now, we use our existing marine rescue boats," Hall County Fire Marshal Capt. Scott Cagle said. "We have a floating pump ... but it takes valuable time to deploy that."

Fire officials have tried for years to get funding for the craft. "When (government leaders) see the word ‘boat,' that's the first thing that gets cut," Cagle said.

They've also pursued federal grants but keep falling short.

"So, maybe through today's operation and showing our capabilities, or lack thereof, this will be the chance or time that we do get (the money)," Cagle said.

Wednesday's operation found its start with Riggan, who moved to Lake Lanier about 3 1/2 years ago.

"I had been involved in exercises in other locations and learned there had never been an exercise like this on Lake Lanier," he said. "And I thought we probably need to do something like that."

What followed was a year of planning and coordinating with numerous agencies, which also included the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Officials said after the exercise, which ended sooner than expected, that they were generally pleased with the response. They held a debriefing following lunch to determine good points as well as areas that needed improvement.

As far as repeating the exercise at some point, Riggan said, "Something of this magnitude probably can't physically be done every year.

"But I definitely think it needs to be repeated, with different scenarios."

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