Officials Practice for Disaster in Windsor

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Windsor — Natural disasters can’t be predicted, but officials are warning that an extreme event will hit Windsor this weekend as part of a mock exercise aimed to test first responders’ abilities to react and respond to large-scale emergencies.

Just what type of disaster will take place on Friday and Saturday and where in Windsor it will hit remains not only a mystery to Windsor residents, but also to those who will respond to it, Windsor Fire Chief Kevin McAllister said.

“We are sworn to secrecy,” McAllister said of the dozens of point people who have been behind “Operation Vigilant Guard,” an exercise organized to bring the Vermont National Guard, Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, and all other state agencies together to prioritize services under catastrophic conditions. “I can’t tell anyone much at this point.”

He has had to keep details of what will take place this weekend secret so all of the first responders who will be participating in the drill “don’t know what is coming.”

After the mock incident, emergency personnel will respond. Officials — many of whom will be headquartered in Waterbury, Vt., including McAllister — will assess agencies’ readiness.

The exercise will start early Friday morning and run through Saturday night. A location hasn’t been disclosed.

Windsor is just one of nearly 50 locations in Vermont, including towns, hospitals and state agencies, that will respond to “staged circumstances,” according to a news release issued on Monday announcing the days of the scheduled events in each location.

Exercises began in parts of Vermont on Monday, and will run through Aug. 2, according to the release.

Other places in the Upper Valley that will be involved with an exercise include the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Mt. Ascutney Hospital in Windsor and Springfield Hospital. Similarly, hospital personnel said they couldn’t speak to what exactly will go on.

All of the exercises at area hospitals are slated for Thursday. Normal operations aren’t expected to be interrupted.

“We will try to bring ourselves up to be ready to accept patients if there was an emergency,” said Mary Hamisevicz, the VA’s emergency management coordinator. “We have to be ready for whatever comes our way.”

That is the main focus of the exercise, said Christopher Herrick, the director of the state Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

“This is really about enhancing what we do on a regular basis, but by pushing us to our limits,” he said. “The issues that come up will help us.”

Some Vermonters, including Windsor residents, will likely witness some of the drill, which will include members of the National Guard “responding” around town. The drill will not only test search and rescue efforts, but also cybersecurity and other potential threats, he said.

A statewide exercise of this scale has never been done before, Herrick said, though first responders have participated in routine catastrophic incident training over the years.

Planning for Vermont’s “Vigilant Guard” exercise began in 2013; similar exercises have taken place in other states, and this year was Vermont’s turn, Herrick said.

Officials in many of the towns where exercises will take place, such as Windsor, expressed interest in participating and volunteered for the project. About 5,000 people, including local, state and federal responders, will participate.

“The only way we can sharpen our skills is by testing ourselves in this fashion,” Herrick said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.