Emergency team in West Virginia town uses Blast software to respond to two potential explosions

Emergency team in West Virginia town uses Blast software to respond to two potential explosions

Officials in Wheeling use modeling app to quickly assess information and help predict danger zones

By Merry Mayer

Special to GCN

In one day, Wheeling, a small city in Ohio County, W.Va., handled emergencies caused by two potentially explosive devices. The Wheeling-Ohio County Emergency Management Agency had explosion modeling software to let it quickly assess the danger and sort out possible responses.

Last December a local lawyer brought a suspicious package she had received to the building that houses the U.S. District Court and post office. An X-ray showed wires and a battery inside the package.

Blast software helped emergency operations director Louis Vargo plan a response to a bomb scare at a Wheeling, W.Va., federal building in an area frequented by pedestrians.

That same day two boys told a sheriff's deputy about a hand grenade they had found while hunting just outside the city limits.

In both cases, emergency officials had to act quickly. At the courthouse, they called local police and fire units to the scene, along with representatives from the U.S. Postal Service's Financial Crimes Task Force of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the U.S. Marshals Service and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The Wheeling courthouse is built of 24-inch-thick granite blocks, but it contains many windows that could shatter in an explosion and injure people walking outside. In addition to evacuating the courthouse and post office, authorities had to begin clearing the area of traffic and pedestrians. This had to be done in just one hour, before hundreds of workers in the danger zone would begin their lunch breaks.

'When we were called to the federal building by the U.S. Marshals Service, I began running the Blast program,' said Louis Vargo, operations director of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Wheeling, which is part of the Wheeling-Ohio County Emergency Management Agency.

Blast software from Essential Technologies Inc. of Rockville, Md., showed whichbuildings were most likely to be damaged and which areas needed to be evacuated based on available data about the possible explosive, as well as weather data. The Blast software is located on a notebook PC in the EOC's command vehicle. The computer continually receives weather information from a portable station provided by Coastal Environmental Systems Inc. of Seattle.

The Blast software predicts at what distance a blast will cause fatalities, severe injuries or eardrum blowouts, Vargo said. 'I then overlay these distances right over my map of the city,' he said. The system displays the map on a large-screen television linked to the notebook.

Officials access information about the location of vulnerable sites, such as day care centers, hospitals and utility lines using Essential Technologie's EIS/GEM Infobook, a data management system.

The system stores the city data in a Microsoft Access database. Essential Technologies wrote an interface so its product could work with Access, Vargo said.

When the second call came in about the hand grenade the boys had found, the OEC again activated its Blast software. Based on information from Blast, officials decided to close nearby Interstate 70 and route traffic away from danger.

In the end, no explosion occurred in either case. The two incidents represented the first time Wheeling-Ohio County EMA had used the Blast software in real situations.

The EOC purchased Blast less than a year ago, Vargo said, but it has had other emergency modeling software since 1979. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires all local EMA's to prepare emergency plans.

Emergency situation

The EOC first purchased EIS/GEM, which stands for emergency information system/global emergency management, in 1979 from EIS International Inc. The company later became Essential Technologies.

The EIS/GEM Infobook display looks like a three-ring binder, with resource tabs covering daily operations, site planning, disaster resources, personnel and emergency response assets.

Vargo said the display is easy to work with, which is especially important since most users only see the program in an emergency.

Users can also add customized pages to meet their specific needs. If a snowplow is needed in Wheeling, users can go to the custom page, click on snowstorms and then click on the icon for a snowplow.

On the snowstorms page, users can also find information about how to recruit owners of four-wheel drive vehicles and snowmobiles for emergency transportation and where to hire private snow removal companies.

Two years ago, EOC also purchased Essential's NBC Warning software, which predicts the impact of nuclear, biological and chemical threats.

Ohio County sits within 25 miles of the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport, Pa.

The county also borders the Ohio River, where barges carrying explosive and hazardous cargo often travel.

The emergency response software runs on a Nobelis 450-MHz server from Equus Inc. of Solon, Ohio. It has 256M of RAM and a 10G hard drive.

The server links to 11 TS301 notebooks from Quantex Microsystems Inc. of Somerset, N.J., each with 128M of RAM, a 6.4G hard drive and Microsoft Windows 98.

The system maintains security with passwords.

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