AIKEN - Graniteville's Byrd Elementary School was prepared.
Had school been in session Jan. 6, last year when two trains crashed and clouds of chlorine drifted across the town, a member of the school's administration would have immediately told teachers and personnel to begin "sheltering in place," Principal Rosie Berry said.
In other words, they would have begun to seal themselves off from the outside world by placing plastic and duct tape over windows and doors.
"If we are given a particular alert, we are on the (public announcement) system and immediately responding to teachers that there is a need," Ms. Berry said.
The school would have implemented steps outlined in the county's Emergency Preparedness Family Planning Guide. Had duct tape not been available, wet towels could have been used to seal gaps under doorways or windows.
The guide also tells people to turn off ventilation systems, water and gas, and go to a room away from the building's exterior. They should stay alert for radio or television announcements.
When emergency personnel arrived at the time of the train wreck shortly before 3 a.m., they were unsure what chemical had spilled. Some were clobbered with the gas themselves, and hundreds of people were unwittingly exposed to yellow-tinged clouds as they fled the small mill town.
Police, fire and emergency officials decided residents were better off staying put, said David Ruth, the county's emergency management coordinator. An estimated 5,400 were evacuated later in the day after chlorine levels dissipated to a safer level.
Though the county has pushed its shelter-in-place plan for more than two years, many in the town were caught unprepared after the spill. Emergency officials explained the process immediately after the crash on radio and television, Mr. Ruth said.
"Everybody should have some type of family emergency plan," he said.
The shelter-in-place procedure is often the best way to save lives when chemical, biological or radiological contaminants are released into the environment, officials say. The chlorine released in Graniteville killed nine people and harmed hundreds more, most of whom were exposed to the gas outside their homes.
County officials promote the shelter-in-place process with a how-to brochure and video. Thousands of guides have been handed out, and emergency personnel have spoken to schools, civic organizations and other groups about its helpfulness.
The practice is commonly accepted by agencies across the nation, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Red Cross.
The Aiken County chapter of the Red Cross also distributes a shelter-in-place fact sheet. Mike Burkhart, the agency's operations coordinator, said the guides can help people conquer the unexpected through education. It provides tips such as having a flashlight on hand and a ready supply of batteries.
"It's all those things we take for granted because 99 percent of the time everything's fine," Mr. Burkhart said. "But that 1 percent of the time the lights go out - do you have this stuff?"
Emergency officials in Richmond and Columbia counties also preach the benefits of having an emergency plan in place.
Steven Bell, a battalion chief with the Augusta Fire Department, cautioned that the shelter-in-place alert isn't a reason to panic.
"Just because they announce it doesn't mean you're in immediate danger," he said. "Sometimes it's just precautionary."
The Medical College of Georgia has pioneered courses on decontamination and disaster life support. The topics have been taught to more than 50,000 people in more than 35 states, said Dr. Richard Schwartz, the chairman of emergency medicine at the school. In addition, Medical College of Georgia Hospital has a new mass decontamination facility, making it one of the leaders in the region for the treatment of casualties attributed to hazardous materials, Dr. Schwartz said.
MCG treated about 30 people during the hours immediately after the train accident.
"Having these types of procedures where you can minimize the impact of an event by doing some very simple things can really make a tremendous difference," Dr. Schwartz said of shelter-in-place.
Not everyone's stocking up on duct tape and batteries, however.
Fred Millar, a Washington consultant and lobbyist with chemical-release expertise, says the shelter-in-place practice became popular after the 1984 chemical release in Bhopal, India, which killed 3,800 people.
Industries in the United States that handled chemicals pushed the idea "because they didn't want to have to relocate," Dr. Millar said.
"You're teaching people to duck and cover basically," he said. "It's not a cure-all like they (are) basically promoting. The question is does it work?"
Many at the local level express confidence in the idea, though there are reservations. There are logistical challenges to be considered, warned Aiken County Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie, the principal of Jefferson Elementary in Warrenville.
"The children - sometimes they're safer where they are," she said. "But it's very difficult for a parent not to want to have their child with them."
Dawn Gresham, an Aiken County resident and regular substitute teacher at Jefferson and Langley-Bath-Clearwater Middle School, has three children who attend Jefferson and Midland Valley High School.
"I feel they're all prepared," Ms. Gresham said.
Michelle Pearson, the director of the preschool and the Mother's Day Out program at St. John's United Methodist Church in Aiken, said the church implemented its own shelter-in-place program with help from the county's emergency management agency.
Ms. Pearson said the church maintains a supply of food, water, first-aid items, diapers and baby formula in every room. It also has caches of towels, flashlights with batteries, duct tape and plastic cut to fit windows and doors.
"We thought it was a good thing to do with this many kids and being a downtown church," Ms. Pearson said.
Many just don't want to see anything like the Graniteville accident happen again.
"There were some real heartbreaking stories as a result of that train accident," Aiken County Councilman Eddie Butler said. "Hopefully, we don't have to go through anything like that again in Aiken County."
Reach Nathan Dickinson at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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