The Chattanooga Fire Department recommends residents enter their phone number into the Alert Hamilton County system to receive alerts in the event of a real emergency. Fire department spokesman Bruce Garner said the system will be used sparingly, and phone numbers will be kept confidential and will not be turned over to any marketing firms. To enter a number in the system, visit http://www.hamiltontn.gov/AlertHamiltonCounty/Default.aspx.
As two Chattanooga firefighters clad in bulky hazmat suits steer four-wheelers, they keep a careful distance from a canister spewing plumes of smoky gas.
Through binoculars, they check the conditions of three fallen workers near the tank and try to pinpoint the source of the leak before they send in more hazmat technicians.
From behind the Tennessee American Water facility on Riverside Drive, voices on a fire department scanner trade details and instructions about a "major hazardous chemical leak" at the water plant, but each sentence caps off with: "This is a test. This is just a test."
Just a test -- but much more than a typical disaster drill, according to Chattanooga Fire Department spokesman Bruce Garner. More than 200 people were involved in planning and carrying out the mock chemical disaster scenario Thursday.
"This is a big, multilevel drill," Garner said as the scenario played out. "A disaster like this would theoretically impact thousands in the downtown area."
Public safety agencies across Hamilton County participated in the drill, along with risk management supervisors from other branches with Tennessee American's parent company, American Water, and evaluators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from Atlanta.
Tennessee American spokeswoman Jessica Presley stressed that the possibility of such a leak at the plant was "highly unlikely" but that the company wanted to test its own risk-management plan.
"Since Tennessee American Water is centrally located in downtown Chattanooga, it was a great facility to host the drill," she said.
All three Chattanooga hospitals -- Erlanger, Memorial and Parkridge -- spent the morning simulating some aspects of their own chemical disaster protocols, Garner said.
At Chattanooga School of the Arts and Sciences, all 1,057 students were ushered to the upper floors of the school building, simulating precautions they would take if toxic gas wafted into the school.
"In this particular scenario, we wouldn't necessarily have time to evacuate. So we'd seal doors and windows and evacuate the lower floors -- where the gas would settle," said upper school Principal Barbara Jordan.
A critical part of the drill was testing emergency agencies' communication with the public. Officials tested Hamilton County's "reverse 911" warning system -- which calls people who've signed up for the service -- by placing test calls to several hundred phone numbers in the test area.
Over three attempts to deliver the test message, the system was successful about 35 percent of the time, which Garner said needs to improve.
The vast majority were calls to land-line phone numbers, which Garner said are hard to keep current. Operators said the success rate was much higher for mobile phones.
An Emergency Alert System, used by radio and television stations, also was tested to what Garner called mixed results. Two television stations, WDEF-Channel 12 and WTVC-Channel 9 successfully relayed the test message to its viewers.
Primary emergency alert radio station WUSY-FM 101 sent out the test message, but no other major radio stations participated, Garner noted. He said those results would be sent to the Federal Communications Commission.