Homeland Security exercise to test readiness

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More than a dozen state and local agencies will work together in a week-long exercise focused on agriculture-based emergencies from March 3 through 8 at the Socorro County Fairgrounds.

The exercise will bring together and test the coordination of all local first responders, as well as representatives from the private sector, state government and federal government; nearly 200 people will participate. Both the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management will be key players throughout the simulation.

Residents near the fairgrounds are advised to anticipate increased activity and traffic, including ambulances, in the area next Monday though Friday.

Greg Myers, New Mexico Homeland Security and Emergency Management Secretary, stressed the importance of the all-encompassing exercise — “On a national level, New Mexico is often held up as an example of a state that is well prepared for the type of events that could knock out critical infrastructure like roads and communications equipment,” Myers said in a press release. “These types of exercises help prepare responders and emergency managers to perform their best in real life situations.” Socorro County’s Emergency Management coordinator Fred Hollis said the exercise will involve cascading events, which in homeland security terminology means “events that arise from an initial incident, making that incident all the more difficult to respond to.

“Cascading events require not only more responders, but a broader range of expertise.” Hollis said. “For example, the exercise could start out with a weather-related event, then close highways, which could cause a chemical spill, which could mean cows stranded in cattle trucks, which could affect milk production, which could affect local restaurants, and so on.”

He said every government agency will take part to some degree, from “cattle inspectors to law enforcement.”

Hollis said this kind of broad exercise has not been done before in New Mexico.

“I understand they tried it once at Playas, but this simulation will give us a better idea on how different government agencies are able to work together in a more realistic scenario,” he said. “Once the exercise is over they’ll produce an after-action review, and then we’ll be able to pinpoint any weaknesses. We’re supposed to be prepared and we’ll see where the glitches are. This will help us enormously.”

Kelly Hamilton, who co-directs the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center at NMSU and is leading the exercise, said in an announcement that the time to train for a crisis is before one happens.

“We hope we never have to apply this training in reality, but staying prepared is what helps minimize problems and even save lives when crisis situations really do happen,” she said.

Those with questions or concerns about the exercise may contact Hamilton at khamilton@nmd.nmsu.edu or at 575-646-3007.