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Preparing for the Worst With MCI's Best

Hazmat Drill Simulates Toxic Chemical Leak

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page LZ01

Thirty men from all corners of the country descended on MCI's sprawling Ashburn headquarters last week to confront a cloud of chemicals that had leaked from a nearby warehouse. It could kill workers and jeopardize the data of hundreds of clients, they were told.

On Monday, two of them donned bulky plastic hazmat suits, joined hands and walked warily through a data storage building, testing the air levels of a lethal form of ammonia.

Jorge Enriquez checks his mask before a hazardous-materials drill at MCI's Ashburn campus. (Photos James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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All was safe, as they knew it would be -- the leak was fictional. But the men were there to practice because a similar disaster could happen, potentially paralyzing a workforce and suspending communications service for thousands in the region. And they are the ones who would head straight for it.

The men, all MCI employees, make up the telecom company's in-house environmental response team. Each is a technician with a day job at one of MCI's 250 centers nationwide, and each has been specially trained for moment's-notice deployment to keep the MCI network afloat in the event of a disaster.

"The good news is we don't have to go very often," said Dick Price, the team's national coordinator and a volunteer fire chief outside Dallas. "But if we do, we're ready."

The chemical spill scenario was among several drills the team worked through last week in one of its semi-annual hazardous materials trainings. The drills are held at different MCI facilities each time, and team members are given minimal notice about the location before boarding planes and trucks headed for the site.

While internal disaster response teams are not unusual in the petroleum or chemical industries, MCI's team has made it a maverick among communications companies. Since MCI created its first team in 1993, only a few other telecom companies have followed suit.

Price said the importance of the team has been highlighted since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the MCI team was quickly deployed to the Washington region and New York City. In New York, they scrambled to get phone lines up quickly and make sure MCI facilities were free of asbestos fibers that might have wafted over from Ground Zero.

On Monday afternoon, in one of numerous drills involving different team members, Roger High and Don Lee strapped on air tanks, zipped up their $650 hazmat suits and pulled on thick plastic orange boots that can hold up in a puddle of acid if need be. Looking like moon-suit-wearing scuba divers, they headed inside the data center, into what could have been a deadly sea of airborne chemicals.

There, High and Lee, both telecom technicians, followed instructions. They stopped after a few yards to test the air. They stopped again to radio out their air tank levels to a supervisor. They logged on to a computer to see if systems were up. The whole time, they were trailed by a hazmat consultant, and a team member outside recorded and transcribed their every word.

They also sweated buckets.

"The temperature in those suits right now is probably about 100 degrees," Don Abbott, the consultant, said as High, of Kansas City, Kan., and Lee, of Hayward, Calif., took another air quality reading.

Not that they minded. Landing a spot on the team is tough, making its members an elite club among the thousands of technicians nationwide. Price said applicants must first be skilled technicians. They also go through a screening process in which smokers, claustrophobics and those who fear heights are eliminated. Several team members are volunteer firefighters or paramedics, Price said. All of the current participants are men, though women have been part of the team in the past.

About 15 minutes after High and Lee entered the warehouse, they stepped outside and waddled toward a decontamination station, where other team members hosed them down and used a bristly brush to scrape off their suits -- which in a real disaster might have been laden with deadly chemicals.

Ken Aitken, a team leader from Atlanta, said all the team's members are risk-takers. And though they do not hope for disasters, he said, "at the same time everyone gets a little adrenaline rush when you do get deployed."

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