No matter how far away, we all felt the blast of Oklahoma City.Then the World Trade Center. The Pentagon. And now, Boston.Shock, confusion, sadness, fear, anger.We felt them all in our gut; we didn’t have to breathe the dust. But some people have to do more than stare at a TV and cry and cuss. Because if a little boy can die waiting for family friends to cross the finish line of a race on a beautiful day in April, it can happen anywhere.On Monday, as timing would have it, a group of Kansas City area police, fire and emergency response officials were meeting at Mid-America Regional Council when two bombs exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon.Three dead, including that 8-year-old boy. More than 170 injured. Limbs blown off, bones splintered. Horror on bloody faces of people who didn’t know they were fighting a war.Everybody at that table in Kansas City asked themselves: Are we ready?“It’s a reminder of the uncertain times we live in and how critical it is to remain vigilant and to be prepared,” Erin Lynch, emergency services and homeland security program director at MARC, said Tuesday.So, is Kansas City ready for a horrific event?No one wants to find out. But officials here say they’ve readied the best possible emergency response plan for mass-casualty scenarios such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and natural disasters like the Joplin tornado.The plan’s strength, they say, is the involvement of agencies across the metro area. When it’s game on, all police departments become one, operating jointly from a single command post. Same with fire and emergency services — an effort of shared personnel, equipment and other resources.Sort of a post-9/11 bucket brigade.Olathe, for example, has special expertise in bomb-squad incidents and heavy trench rescue. Lee’s Summit is known for water rescue.“Everybody cannot afford to be an expert in all things,” said Tim Danneberg, spokesman for Olathe. “We help each other.”Gladstone City Manager Kirk Davis, who also serves as co-chair of the area’s Regional Homeland Security Coordinating Committee, agreed.“Boston did a great job Monday, and Kansas City would do a great job,” Davis said. “But Kansas City would get a lot of help. ... Gladstone would be there. So would Lee’s Summit and cities in Johnson County. All those people sit at our table.“We spend a lot of time on this, right down to making sure we can all communicate on the same radio frequency.”Todd Farley, deputy chief and director of emergency management for the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District, thinks the metro plan would hold up well.“Our law enforcement people are more than capable of dealing with bombs and security, protecting scenes and evidence and protecting citizens from a third or fourth device,” Farley said Tuesday. “We have hazmat teams if those bombs turn out to be dirty bombs.“If a bomb is as big as Oklahoma City, we have a heavy rescue team trained for urban search and rescue. Emergency medical services are trained for mass casualties, and our hospitals know what that plan is.“We know Kansas City is just as susceptible as Boston. We’ve practiced this plan. We found the strengths and weaknesses, and we went back and fixed the weaknesses.”The area’s law enforcement officials share a culture forged by Oklahoma City and 9/11, said Tom Dailey, Independence police chief and a member of MARC’s Regional Homeland Security Coordinating Committee.“We have had a whole generation of police officers come on since 9/11,” said Dailey.Today’s officers are routinely alert to signs of possible threats such as illegally parked cars, or cars with sagging trunks, Dailey said. Most large venues have had vehicle barriers installed. Most large public events will have a corresponding emergency response plan.“Terrorism is crime on steroids, and we have developed an inventory of behaviors and activities that often occur before terrorist acts,” Dailey said.“The goal of terrorists is to erode confidence in the ability of governments to protects its citizens. So the most important thing the public needs to know is that we started this a long time ago, and we are constantly checking on our effectiveness.”Kansas City’s awakening came long before Oklahoma City and 9/11, with the 1981 Hyatt skywalks collapse. The city needed heavy construction equipment to deal with the rescue and recovery, and companies responded.“The call went out, and there were lots of people who brought a lot of resources to bear to help dig people out,” said Danny Rotert, spokesman for Kansas City. “Ever since then, the region has really worked hard to make sure all the resources we have region-wide are there.”Along with new facilities and equipment since 9/11, the area’s first responders have adopted a mantra of training, training, training.On Tuesday, in fact, fire departments from several Johnson County communities were conducting training in rescues from “structural collapse.”Kansas City firefighters are trained to determine whether chemicals were present in explosions.“We train on how to identify specific packages and how to mitigate their effects,” said James Garrett, Fire Department spokesman. “You can never guess exactly what the threat will be.”Last summer, Jackson County-area first responders took part in a specific exercise: a coordinated response to a “mass-fatality event.” At the exercise, conducted over several days in late August at the Central Jackson County Fire District training office in Blue Springs, public safety personnel tested a mobile morgue, practiced search and recovery operations, and rehearsed roles in a victim-identification center.“Hopefully it never happens, but if it does we have plans in place and know what we have to do,” said Mike Henderson, operations and investigations chief of the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office.Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp was among the first responders to the Joplin tornado. In a makeshift morgue at Missouri State University, he worked with others to photograph the bodies of almost 100 victims killed.The experience, however grim, was valuable, Sharp said.“You can train for threats every day, but until you actually live them and experience the horror of what a tornado — or an incident like the one in Boston — can do, you don’t get a real feel for it.”
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