BY GARY L. SMITH
OF THE JOURNAL STAR
HENNEPIN – This small county-seat community on the Illinois River was the scene of «a challenging marine environment» Thursday to test military and civilian response to the potential scenario of terrorist activities stemming from a barge in tow on the river.
The Illinois Army National Guard joined the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI and Illinois Emergency Management Agency as well as Putnam County and local emergency service providers in a drill designed to test response to the possible presence of biochemical agents or weapons of mass destruction on a barge.
«We wanted a challenging marine environment» for the first-of-its-kind exercise, and local officials «stepped up and made it possible» for the event to take place in Hennepin after about a two-month planning process, said Coast Guard Lt. Commander Joe Snowden, a St. Louis-based officer and incident commander for the training exercise.
«If they weren’t involved and weren’t interested, this could not have happened,» Snowden said.
When village officials were contacted about hosting the event, «We jumped at the idea,» said Mayor Kevin Coleman, partly because of the training opportunities it offered local emergency service agencies that might someday face a major crisis arising from barge traffic.
«The different things that go up and down this river, who knows what could be (on the barges)?» Coleman said. «It’s been a great learning experience.»
At the center of the drill were members of the Bartonville-based National Guard 5th Civil Support Team, some of who donned high-tech protective garb to investigate the barge as part of the simulated threat. That team has been involved in providing security in such high-profile events as the 2002 Olympics and a U.S. Open golf tournament as well as last week’s opening of the new Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, officials said.
And because their mission is to prepare for any possible attack or threat to homeland security, training exercises encompass as wide a range of scenarios as possible, said Lt. Col. Scott Swinford, director of military support for the squad. For instance, an exercise earlier this week involved a railroad car near Havana.
«We try to think like (terrorists) do as much as we can, and try to think of as many scenarios as we can. And we try to find any holes in the armor, and then plug those holes,» Swinford said.
The team has conducted 48 training exercises in the past year, said Capt. Troy Scott, deputy commander of the 1st Army Weapons of Mass Destruction Division, which supervised the drill. But it’s the first involving the unique challenges posed by a barge, said Coast Guard officer Snowden.
«This is the first time we put the boots on the ground and the boats in the water,» Snowden said. «I’ve been very pleased with the professionalism of everyone here. Everything has gone very smoothly.»
Putnam County ESDA director Jim Goldasich, a U.S. Navy veteran, said he also was impressed by «the professionalism everyone’s displayed; everyone from calling out the fire department, to IEMA, to the Civil Support Team.
«As a retired military, they’ve really impressed me,» Goldasich said.
BY GARY L. SMITH