A biochemical bomb ignited a fire at the Abbottville Post Office on Monday afternoon, officials said.
Over the preceding weekend, there also had been: a school shooting, a church fire, a bleacher collapse at the football field and an accident involving a 22-month-old boy named Joshua who fell down a well.
The sleepy little town experienced a rough few days, but officials at Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Services said they couldn't have been happier with the way things went. That's because Abbottville doesn't exist--except as a collection of plastic cutouts arrayed on tables at the Sterling fire station in Cascades.
"I've been in the fire service for over 20 years, and I've never seen anything like this before," said fire and rescue spokeswoman Mary Maguire. "You feel like Gulliver because you've got this little city."
At 1/87th scale, Abbottville was built at a size familiar to model train buffs. The town's founder and mayor is Don Abbott, a retired division chief for the Indianapolis Department of Fire Services who travels the country with his wife, Beverly, wreaking havoc on Abbottville's poor residents to help train real emergency officials in real disaster management.
Although Beverly Abbott said they "didn't intend on being this busy during retirement," their services are much in demand. Their four-day stop in Sterling, Friday through Monday, was part of an East Coast tour for the two-person consulting firm called Command Emergency Response Training (CERT). Among their next stops: the Pentagon. ("We're creating scenarios for them," Abbott said. "That's all I can say.")
The Abbotts were invited to Loudoun by Rob Pye, assistant chief at the Sterling Volunteer Fire Department and career firefighter and paramedic in Arlington County. Pye saw the couple two years ago at Command School, an annual conference for fire and emergency medical services personnel.
"What I saw, and with our facilities and needs here as a department, I felt they had something to offer," Pye said. He added that using Abbottville as a tool is unique because it allows emergency personnel to visualize a disaster, rather than simply listen to abstract lectures on incident management.
"You can't just blow something up and play with it" in real life, he said. In Abbottville, you can do just that.
On Sunday morning, Abbottville was spread over eight picnic tables, its buildings constructed from kits or scratch. There was a mini Wal-Mart, a military facility, an airport, a trailer park ("Naturally, this is the first place the tornado usually hits," Abbott said), a water treatment plant, a toy store, a McDonald's, a pile of tiny tires--even a little river flowing through town.
A water tower loomed over downtown with the town's ominous slogan etched across its facade: "Abbottville: A Disaster Waiting to Happen."
As self-described "Master of Disaster," Don Abbott assigned roles to the two dozen fire and rescue volunteers who came for Sunday's session. Four people were given the role of firefighters, and there was an EMS representative, a sheriff, a dispatcher and fire command. Everyone got a walkie-talkie, and the person playing dispatcher was given a script of how to announce the incident to the role players.
And then the games began.
"There is no one way to do this," Abbott told the role players. "Make sure you have more than one plan," he said just before he pressed "play" on his boombox. The sound of a crying baby filled the large conference room. Joshua had just fallen down the well.
During the next two hours, Abbott tried to reconstruct the real incident on which Joshua's accident was based. Getting firetrucks, paramedics and police to the scene was the easy part. After that, the role players had to come up with a plan to rescue the child while dealing with the obstacles Abbott and his wife threw at them.
Beverly Abbott played the hysterical mother who kept interfering with the sheriff. Don Abbott played the nosy neighbor who wanted to know what was going on and then offered a lot of bad advice: "Fill the hole with water, and the kid'll float to the top!" Then the whap-whap-whap of a TV station's helicopter blasted over the boombox, making it nearly impossible for the players to hear each other. The Abbotts whipped the conference room into a frenzy not unlike at the scene of real disasters.
During the next drill, the town's little church was set on fire, with children reportedly trapped in the basement day-care center. Fairfax County firefighter Vince Krause, 23, who is also a Sterling volunteer, shook his head.
"It's frustrating. That part's real," said Krause, who played an EMS technician. Looking at his walkie-talkie, he elaborated. "I'm trying to talk to command, command's trying to talk to someone else. I gotta wait my turn, and by that time it could be too late."
Over the weekend, the Abbotts recreated more than 15 such scenarios for about 150 emergency personnel. The deputy county administrator attended, as did the director of Animal Care and Control. Representatives from the Department of Mental Health and Retardation, the Sheriff's Office, the Loudoun chapter of the Red Cross, the county Purchasing and Finance Department, the Social Services Department and the libraries all were on hand to learn how to work together as a team in a disaster.
The $5,000 cost was paid by the Sterling fire and rescue squads and the fire and rescue departments. Bob Griffin, assistant county administrator for public safety, said he was most impressed with the way the drills cast a new light on relationships between various agencies.
The drills, he said, answered such questions as: "How do we link government services to major disasters? How do we link social services, and purchasing and finance, and the Red Cross to something that happens out in the field like a school shooting or a tornado?"
Beverly Abbott stressed that the exercise is key to introducing "various groups who don't actually get together and talk."
"It's also a lot of fun," Griffin added, provided that the disasters stay in Abbottville.