The police and fire radios Tuesday morning crackled with reports about the man who came upon a mysterious parked van emitting a foul odor. He was standing on a street corner in the Columbia Gateway office park, waving his arms and trying to summon police cruisers parked a short distance away. But the officers wouldn't come near him, and neither would rescue workers who stood across the street yelling to him.
Minutes later, two more rescue workers, wearing oversized yellow hazardous materials suits and driving a motorized cart, pulled up to the man.
That staged scene was a test of how police and fire officials would react if a stolen, leaking barrel of poison were discovered in Howard. It was part of the county's first Community Readiness Week, during which officials conducted emergency scenarios and tested new communications equipment.
Today, officials with the Community Emergency Response Network and Howard County General Hospital are scheduled to announce the creation of a medical reserve corps unit, a group of 18 medical professionals who would work with first responders and could establish a mobile hospital if Howard County General Hospital were filled in a disaster.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the county has received significant federal grants for disaster training and equipment. Local officials have studied how terrorism in the nation's capital could spill over to Howard, just 45 minutes away. And the recent destruction and chaos along the Gulf Coast following two hurricanes prompted local officials to further refine their strategies.
"What we have seen with Katrina is making us examine what we used to think were the right answers," said Joseph Herr, Howard County's fire chief.
Herr is asking questions, of himself, local leaders and residents. Do businesses have plans to take care of employee records or deliver services if a disaster strikes? What if all the fire stations are wiped out, as happened in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish outside New Orleans? Do families know how to provide for pets if they are forced to leave their homes for days?
Herr said his department also needs to address the needs of the families of first responders during a prolonged crisis.
"We don't have a plan," he said. "That's something we have to think about."
A community needs to be self-reliant in a crisis, said Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive of the Columbia-based Horizon Foundation and chairman of the emergency response network, a coalition of government and community leaders formed in 2003.
"You can't rely on high levels of government" to quickly be on the scene, he said. "The community has to be resilient for a period of three to five days."
That's been a guiding principle for the network, which has provided disaster training for hundreds of volunteers and conducted planning exercises with school and public utility officials.
County officials are taking advantage of new technologies to speed their response efforts. Fire and Rescue Services has acquired a portable device that can analyze substances on the scene and determine whether they are hazardous in minutes, instead of hours. The department also is purchasing a vehicle that can decontaminate people exposed to hazardous substances.
And this week, the county will test its new automated telephone dialing system, which sends a recorded message to homes and offices during a disaster.
But getting the word out in a crisis also depends on low-tech methods. In the past year, the emergency response network has promoted an effort called Neighbor-to-Neighbor, designed to organize residents within a neighborhood. Andrea Ingram, executive director of Howard's homeless shelter and crisis hotline, came up with Neighbor-to-Neighbor after her North Laurel community was left without power for a long stretch two years ago, after Hurricane Isabel.
Through fliers and door-to-door visits, residents have shared e-mail addresses, phone numbers and details about the needs of their household members and pets or the resources they can provide in a crisis.
"It's really for neighborhoods where people aren't so connected," Ingram said. "Once your kids aren't at the bus stop, it's really easy for neighbors to drift apart."