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Police balk at Wal-Mart distribution point for terror drill

By James Beaty, Area Editor March 07, 2002
The Local Emergency Planning Committee preparing for the April 12-13 bioterrorism response exercise in McAlester hit an impasse over one of the "antibiotic" distribution sites during a meeting Wednesday at the Southeast Expo Center.
Police said the entrance to the Wal-Mart Supercenter, one of the planned distribution sites for "medicine" to be handed out to members of the public participating in the April 13 exercise, is too dangerous to handle the increased traffic.

Assistant McAlester Police Chief George Scott advised against using the Wal-Mart Supercenter as one of the distribution sites, calling the entrance to it off Comanche Avenue "the most dangerous intersection in the city."

"We have accidents there every day," Scott said, referring to the intersection and nearby service roads.

Anticipating more accidents if the Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot is used as a distribution site, Scott said "I might as well preposition an officer with a tape measure."

The scenario for the exercise, called Sooner Spring, includes a response to a simulated bioterrorism attack to dispense the pneumonic plague on the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant and the city of McAlester on April 12.

Plans then call for area residents to receive "antibiotics" in the form of jelly beans or fruit drinks, on April 13. The purpose is to test how well emergency responders can react to a bioterrorism attack and a need to provide treatment or protection to area residents.

Plans call for the distribution sites to include the Wal-Mart Supercenter, the Warren Clinic, the Southeast Expo Center and the Pittsburg County Health Department, as well as the towns of Krebs, Crowder and Kiowa. Area residents are being asked to come by one of the sites on April 13 and pick up their "medicine."

Anticipation of even more people than usual crowding in the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Saturday, April 13, led police to voice their concerns.

"When you look at a site, you should look at a big open site, with lots of exits," Scott said. He said the LEPC should reconsider the Wal-Mart site.

During the debate, Pittsburg County Medical Director Dr. David Cathey and David Wadley of Wadley's Ambulance Service were among those who noted that the Wal-Mart Supercenter is one of the most well-known sites in the area and would get a lot of public participation.

Questions were raised about having officers direct traffic.

Scott, as well as Pittsburg County Sheriff Jeorme "Snookie" Amaranto, didn't think it feasible to have officers on U.S. Highway 69 directing traffic through the intersection. Scott said it would deplete too many resources, since it would take more than one officer.

"I think I can safely say the McAlester Police Department is not going to put any officers in the intersection," Scott said.

Amaranto said the sheriff's department wouldn't either, predicting traffic would soon be tied up for a mile if officers tried to direct traffic through the Highway 69 intersection.

Pittsburg County Undersheriff D.G. "Stoney" Stonecipher noted the Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot is on private property, not a public roadway. Accidents there are considered as occurring on private property.

Wadley said if the Wal-Mart Supercenter site is used, he planned to pre-position an ambulance at the site, in anticipation of an accident.

McAlester Army Ammunition Plant Fire Chief Don Kapps suggested using the Kiamichi Technology Center as one of the distribution sites, instead of Wal-Mart.

LEPC President Larry Burnett and the rest of the group agreed to table action on finalizing the sites until their next meeting, with plans to approach KTC about using that facility as a distribution site.

In other action, Dr. Bob Petrone said containers being brought by helicopter and fixed wing aircraft to McAlester Regional Airport on April 13 will probably be carrying empty plastic bottles.

Pittsburg County Health Department Director Mike Echelle said the jelly-beans and drinks to be used in place of real antibiotics will already be in McAlester.

The group also decided to work on using one radio frequency for all emergency responders and law enforcement participating in the exercise.

Dr. Cathey said security issues could come up during the exercise and its aftermath.

"We're not going to be out there talking about the weakness of the exercise," he said.

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