PITTSBURG -- It's an annual emergency operations drill that provides dozens of firefighters and other first-responders with the opportunity to practice lifesaving skills in the massive industrial environment of the Dow Chemical plant.

This year, the drill scenario that unfolded over an hour and 45 minutes on Tuesday involved the "rescue" of two workers -- actually mannequins -- overcome from the accidental release of a hydrochloric acid vapor cloud from a chemical tank used in the production of agricultural pesticides. By the time the drill was over, one was "dead" while the "survivor" was transported by helicopter to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

Coincidentally, first-responders responding to a real emergency -- an accident in front of Turner Elementary School in Antioch involving a speeding car that seriously injured two women -- delayed the start of Tuesday's exercise for an hour until 10 a.m.

"That's why preparation is essential. Your resources are going to be very scarce," in a real-life situation when another emergency occurs at the same time, said Lonnie Karste, an Antioch resident and member of Dow's Community Advisory Panel who observed the drill.

Once the drill got under way, Dow's in-house fire department arrived at the scene, spraying water on the tank to knock down the imaginary vapor cloud caused by the imaginary leak. A mannequin dangled from a safety harness that had caught on a railing near the top of the tank while the other mannequin was prone on the platform.


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"We're on the site. It's going to take a few minutes for ConFire to get here," explained Randy Fischback, Dow's director of public and government affairs. But before the rescue began, the leak was sealed.

"You can't put people in harm's way," said Fischback, adding in a drill scenario a rescue tends to unfold slower than during an actual rescue to give participants time to practice their skills.

Andrew Laiho, a production unit leader at Dow, watched the operation unfold as some of his crew members who are cross-trained to work with Dow firefighters helped out.

"This is an interesting drill. We've got an obstruction scenario, which is what you could have in real life, " said Laiho, referring to some ongoing construction work in the area he supervises. "We try to develop as realistic a situation as we can," he said.

At a post-drill debriefing, participants discussed lessons learned and what could be done to make improvements. For example, authorities suggested that a decontamination area could have been set up closer to the rescue site and it would be better to have a helicopter landing area in a paved area instead of a gravel area.

Steve Laren, safety officer at Delta Diablo Sanitation District, attended as an observer.

"We're trying to ramp up our emergency operations," he said. "Dow's been doing this for awhile and we think we can learn from them."

Reach Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her on Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.