Emergency services flocked to the Marquette Board of Light and Power Plant Number Four Wednesday, but not for an emergency. It was a full scale hazardous materials training exercise involving law enforcement, military, and everything in between.
It's something that the Marquette Emergency Management Office does multiple times a year. Full scale exercises like this one make sure no one is caught off guard in a real emergency.
"It's very important to be prepared because that way you know what you're going to have to do in an incident, you know what your resources are, and you know who you have to call, and you know everybody prior to the event so you know who you're dealing with," said Teresa Schwalbach, Marquette County Emergency Management Coordinator.
They spent days putting together a scenario involving a radioactive "dirty bomb" planted in the power plant. A detailed fake situation helps add to the reality of the training. Everything was staged and safe, but it was treated like a real emergency.
The scenario describes a disgruntled employee who came back into the building to place the bomb. A separate BLP employee discovers the suspicious package, calls it in to his superiors, who then call in the fire department. The Marquette Fire Department came in to assess the situation. Once they realized the area was highly irradiated, they started setting up a perimeter and called the Emergency Management Office who then coordinate with other agencies. In this case, they called representatives from local and state police, County Rescue, the Coast Guard, and the National Guard, along with volunteers from the Red Cross and similar organizations.
For this particular exercise, the Emergency Management Office had the help of the National Guard's 51st Civil Support Team from Battle Creek downstate, which specializes in weapons of mass destruction. They were in town for the exercise and were the inspiration for creating a scenario that involved radiation.
After setting up, they broke out the Hazmat suits and went in to action. Because there was no real radiation, the equipment was mainly for show. When the soldiers went in, they looked for pre-placed signs indicating radiation readings that became increasingly hazardous all the way up to the location of the bomb.
"We had it so hot that nobody should have been in there, and they would have hit a really high reading for their radiation dose," said Captain Amie Phelps of the 51st.
The soldiers would go in for a few minutes at a time to minimize their exposure. They were in no hurry because the situation was not threating any human life. Upon exiting for the last time, they detoxed their suits and wrapped up for debreifing. It took several hours, and somewhere between 50 and 100 people were involved in the entire exercise.
Fire Chief Tom Belt says it has been an invaluable experience.
"We're exposed to a lot of different equipment, some different ideas. We're able to crosstrain and share expertise in both directions, and really that's as good as training gets right there," said Chief Belt of the Marquette Fire Department.
Mayor Johnny DePetro was one of several public officials present to observe the drill.
"Everybody coordinated very professionally, so I have all the confidence in the world with all the agencies involved," said Mayor DePetro.
Hazmat incidents are rare in the U.P. according to Schwalbach, but residents can all rest easy knowing they're in good hands thanks to exercises like these. The most recent Hazmat incident involved a report of a nerve agent at Bell Hospital that turned out to be false.