Chattanooga agencies practice what would happen if post office found anthrax letter

Chattanooga agencies practice what would happen if post office found anthrax letter

May 23rd, 2013 by Lindsay Burkholder in Local Regional News

Chattanooga Fire Department personnel assemble a three-chamber decontamination tent Wednesday during a drill at the Shallowford Road postal distribution center. Fire personnel from left are senior firefighter Raymond Reed, Lt. Vernon Lane, senior firefighter Brandon Atkins, Capt. Andre Dean and senior firefighter Kelly Schroyer.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Local emergency response workers practiced how to respond to a biohazard threat at the Shallowford Road Post Office on Wednesday and tested their overall response plan.

The drill specifically tested how the center would respond to an anthrax attack, like the one that killed five people in the U.S. in 2001.

"What that's doing is simulating what would happen if a suspicious package found its way into our facility," said David Walton, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service. "So we're working with local responders today, going through all the necessary steps to ensure the safety of our employees here at this facility."

Employees streamed through the doors during an evacuation, pooling in the parking lot next to a tent the fire department had set up for a dry run of the decontamination process.

But a loud crack of thunder tore open the sky, and the dry run turned into a very wet experience for the 15 postal workers who had volunteered to be "decontaminated."

Despite the rain, many found the drill reassuring.

"It's good to know what to expect in case something happens," said Denise Carter, an employee at the facility who works in operations support.

Carter and her fellow volunteers, wearing now-soggy orange vests, piled onto a CARTA bus and were shuttled to the Brainerd Recreation Center. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department had set up a "point of dispensing" to simulate the process of handing out medication to those affected by an anthrax attack.

"Essentially, this is a way for us to rapidly distribute medications as needed into our community," said Sabrina Novak, emergency response coordinator for the health department.

Volunteers shuffled through a maze of bright yellow cones and orange tape, filling out their medical histories and receiving their dose of "medication." Since it was just a drill, the dosage was either a cup of almonds or a package of M&Ms labeled "doxycycline -- take one capsule by mouth every 12 hours for 10 days."

"It's pretty much practice makes perfect in case there ever was any suspicious package that came through a system that's in that plant there," Walton said. "It's like a tornado drill."

Walton said the participants and agencies met after the test to talk about anything that could improve the process.

Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at lburkholder@timesfreepress or 423-757-6592.