The water supply in Sampson County has been contaminated.
Inside the emergency building, Heather Bonney answers questions from the media, to the best of her ability, while glancing at a laptop screen. Emergency officials walk in and out of the room, while communicating with others at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
As the Assistant Public Information Officer for Sampson County, Bonney talks about tularemia, a disease of animals and humans caused by bacteria. It can be life-threatening, but most infections can be treated.
“You can only get it by touching a dead animal or consuming water and food that’s been contaminated,” she said.
No one was realy sick and the water was not contaminated Thursday, but the county’s emergency and health officials were working as if both were as part of a mock exercise. For those involved, it was a serious matter.
“They wanted to make sure what we have on paper actually works the way it’s supposed to work,” Bonney said. “You can’t really do that until you actually put it into play.”
She said the emergency departments are here to serve the residents. Agencies involved in the drill included Sampson County’s Emergency Management, Health Department, hospital, Sheriff’s Department and Clinton Police Department.
“We take pride in knowing that our first responders have the training and drills in order to be right there ready and willing to help, to the best of their ability,” Bonney stressed.
All residents who had drank water would have been asked to come to a “park and ride” site. The purpose is to do a preliminary triage, to make sure they were not exposed.
Across town, medicine distribution and care is taking place at Sampson Middle School, the mock Point of Distribution (POD). Several high school volunteers simulated people going through lines for treatment.
Through the operation, officials from the EOC kept in contact with the POD.
“We act as a backup for people who are actually at the distribution center,” she said. “The whole point of the EOC is to prevent confusion and to coordinate.”
During the scenario, Kathie Johnson, nursing director at Sampson’s Health Department, said medications were sent to the POD from outside sources.
“Each situation would have been different,” Johnson said about treating and providing education to residents.
Johnson noted that the cooperation between the staff members went well.
“They worked really well together to get everybody through as quickly as possible,” she said.
One issue was communication among the different agencies.
“It’s not talking with one another, but the different points of communications, such as not being able to get through by a cell phone, radio, or texting,” Johnson said.
But overall, she was pleased with the exercise.
“I think we did an excellent job, especially considering the fact that this is the first time we did a full scale exercise. It went extremely well today,” Johnson said.
Planning for the exercise, which included 150 participants, took almost a year for the Local Emergency Planning Committee.
“This whole exercise has been kept confidential so the people actually going through the drill did not know what was going on,” Bonney said. “Only the people on the committee knew. It really is like a real life situation.”
Jerry Cashwell, assistant emergency management director/fire marshall, said the process went well and improved training for those involved.
“It’s not the house fires or the spills that you encounter regularly,” Cashwell said. “Anytime you can practice that, hopefully it’ll prepare you for the day that you will have to use it. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it.”
Bonney felt the same way.
“We pray something like this never happens,” she said. “But if it were to occur, all of our first responders would know what to do.”