Better Safe Than Sorry

Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, VA)
May 28, 2015

HARRISONBURG - Walking past James Madison University's Godwin Field on Wednesday, onlookers may have wondered why people in hazmat suits were headed toward Shorts Hall.

No real danger existed; rather, local public safety agencies and the Virginia National Guard were partnering for a training exercise in responding to an emergency.

Nineteen guardsmen and airmen from Fort Pickett teamed up with the Harrisonburg Fire Department, Harrisonburg Rescue Squad, JMU Police, Sentara RMH Medical Center and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

Maj. Michael Booker of the 34th Civil Support Team said the Guard does emergency scenario training at least once a month.

As part of Wednesday's exercise, Booker said, personnel were told that at about 10 the previous night, the fire alarm in Shorts Hall was pulled, sending everyone outside the dormitory.

Once outside, people began to develop skin and eye irritations and sore throats.

"We've been asked to determine what caused it," Booker said.

When the Civil Support Team arrived at JMU's campus Wednesday morning, it met with local first responders to assess the situation. Soldiers searched the building, which Booker said was already searched by HFD, and looked for the source of the symptoms.

Heather Funkhouser and Allison Mayzel of the rescue squad said that in the scenario, 18 patients were reported to have the symptoms, 10 of whom were transported to Sentara RMH. The other eight patients provided their own transportation to the hospital.

Funkhouser said that in this scenario, the rescue squad would perform an emergency "D-Con," or decontamination, procedure and dump water over patients suffering from symptoms. She said the goal would be to rinse anything off their skin that could harm emergency personnel.

Funkhouser and Mayzel, both 21-year-old rising seniors at JMU, said this was their first hazardous materials training drill.

Ron Raab, a professor in JMU's Department of Integrated Science and Technology and the coordinator for the training exercise, said the goal was for personnel to determine the symptoms were caused by extracted capsaicin from hot peppers. In the scenario, the capsaicin was placed along handrails and doors outside Shorts Hall so that when students exited the building, they came in contact with it.

But as a "red herring," Raab's team put a meth lab in a dorm on the fourth floor to distract from the peppers in a fifth-floor dorm room.

Booker said he has never dealt with biological warfare, but "the threat is always there." Raab said such an occurrence on a college campus is not unheard of, citing the case of a Georgetown University student who was arrested last year for making ricin, a deadly poison, in his dorm room.

Published: Thursday, May 28, 2015

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2018

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