SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 15, 2013

Salem bracing for a crisis

BY TOM DALTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALEM — It is Halloween and a commuter train packed with costumed passengers is heading through the Salem tunnel when something happens in one of the cars.

The conductor pulls an emergency brake, causing the four-car train to come to a screeching halt and sending riders slamming against seats and poles.

Suddenly, police are flooded with emergency calls. There is an incident in the tunnel, possibly a fire or explosion on the train. There are reports of smoke, screams and injured riders.

Fortunately, this has never happened in Salem, but this will be the general scene Sunday, June 2, when the MBTA, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, and Salem police and firefighters conduct an emergency evacuation drill inside the Salem tunnel.

Although planned months ago and one in a series of annual exercises for the commuter rail system, the drill takes on heightened meaning this year, coming just weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing. The timing is not lost on the participants.

“This is the real deal,” said Salem police Chief Paul Tucker, “and they’re making it as realistic as possible.”

At a planning meeting early this year, long before the marathon, Tucker said they even discussed the possibility of simulating a bomb, or some kind of explosion on a train.

This drill has a strong public component.

State officials are looking for volunteers to act as passengers in the simulated incident. Halloween costumes are encouraged, but optional.

“This is a great opportunity for residents of Salem to support public safety efforts in their community,” Ed Gincauskis, an emergency management coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said in a release sent yesterday to community organizations.

To register, go to http://goo.gl/NwY0f or contact Mass DOT at nboyd@mbta.com. Participants must be available from 7 to 11 a.m. that day and sign a waiver.

Although the crisis in the tunnel could be a fire or explosion, organizers don’t want to provide exact details because they want the emergency responders to react to some unknowns.

“We don’t want to give everything away,” said Randy Clarke, senior director of security and emergency management for the T. “It’s going to be like a real-life situation because you won’t know everything you’re going into.”

The key is to see how well the emergency responders, which include transit, commuter rail and city safety officials, can communicate with one another and safely evacuate passengers.

Although a T official said this drill is not a response to the Boston Marathon bombing, he acknowledged that the two events are not unrelated.

“That’s what we think about every day,” said Clarke. “The nature of our jobs is to think about things like this ... to prevent something (like that) from happening.”

Drills like this are crucial, officials said, to build partnerships and improve communication among law enforcement agencies that respond to emergencies.

“I think the big thing from this whole drill is we’re practicing incident command,” said fire Chief Dave Cody, “so that police, fire, ambulance and any other services can work together.”

Tom Dalton can be reached at tdalton@salemnews.com.