Suited in a billowy white jumper and breathing through a mask intended to protect him from harmful toxins, Lt. Stephen Weiler started to get a headache during a training exercise at a federal facility in Alabama. He and other potential first-responders from around the country were in a room that was deliberately being pumped full of harmful chemicals when he realized that headaches were on the checklist of early symptoms to watch for.
The point of the exercise was to help Weiler and the others respond to a range of incidents that might involve dangerous chemicals. Train derailments, highway collisions and even terrorism are potential catastrophes for which police and other emergency crews might be called upon.
But this was training. This was supposed to be a controlled environment.
“I’m thinking, oh man, I’ve got a leak,” Weiler said of his growing concern. “I just had my mask on too tight.”
Weiler and Forest Park Police Sgt. Patrick Tierney are the first officers in the department to complete this training at the only federally-chartered facility where participants learn to handle incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. The four-day course was paid for entirely with federal funding and attempts to better prepare municipal agencies to handle the unthinkable.
As in many communities, though, the unthinkable could take any number of forms. Forest Park’s proximity to one of the country’s largest cities certainly keeps terrorism on the list of possibilities, but there are other concerns as well. According to Weiler, the village is also left vulnerable by rail lines for both cargo and passenger trains, and the Eisenhower Expressway is a direct link to downtown Chicago. Then there is the bulk mail facility and a military reserve center.
Should the city host the 2016 Olympics, that too will have an impact on surrounding communities, said Weiler.
“It’s almost amazing how much you have in town that’s a threat,” Weiler said.
The police department lacks much of the equipment that Weiler and Tierney used during the course of their training, and some of it is quite expensive. But the officers returned with a greater sense of the preparations necessary for such a disaster, and immediately encouraged other ranking officers to sign up. According to Weiler, every supervisor in the department is scheduled to attend a similar program at the same federal facility in the spring.
Police Chief Jim Ryan is a member of the Cook County Urban Security Initiative, which makes recommendations on equipment purchases using federal funding. Personal radiation monitors have been acquired through this program, according to Ryan, and the group is in the process of testing upgraded equipment.
Further emphasizing the importance of the training, Ryan said the election of President-elect Barack Obama to the White House will certainly change things in Illinois. During Obama’s election night rally in Chicago, Forest Park had additional officers on duty and worked with a regional emergency services team to prepare for possible widespread violence, an emergency evacuation from Grant Park and other scenarios. Once Obama takes the oath of office, any travels through the area will become a coordinated effort between local and federal agencies, said Ryan.
Meanwhile, the lieutenant said he finds himself constantly assessing his own readiness should a massive contamination occur.
“My quasi-joke is that our lives change with a phone call,” Weiler said.