FEMA preparedness demonstrated in Las Vegas

Tony Confessore was in Graniteville, S.C., with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2005 when a train crash caused chlorine gas to leak into the air.

Nine people died, and 5,400 residents were forced to evacuate, but the incident could have been worse if FEMA's Prepositioned Equipment Program had not been able to supply local agencies with decontamination and medical supplies just hours after the accident, Confessore said Wednesday.

Confessore is now team leader at FEMA's 10th PEP support pod in Las Vegas. The pod, which opened in March, is designed to respond with emergency supplies to disasters within a 600-mile radius in 12 hours or less.

Their presence can be critical for local agencies, which often lack necessary resources to respond to a large-scale crisis such as the one in Graniteville, he said.

"The (Graniteville fire) chief had tears in his eyes," Confessore said. "He said it would have taken months to get that equipment through their funding channels."

Each of the 10 pods house $2.5 million of equipment, including HAZMAT suits, chemical and biological agent detectors, decontamination tents, and high-tech thermal search equipment to find survivors in collapsed buildings.

The equipment, on display for the media and local officials Wednesday, is packed in 10 storage containers, which are loaded on two tractor-trailer rigs. The containers were designed to be transported by air, water or land and can supply up to 150 people for 48 to 72 hours, said Ed McGuire, a FEMA administrator. FEMA is a division within the Department of Homeland Security.

Although designed to respond to all emergencies, McGuire said, there is an emphasis on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive weapons of mass destruction.

Las Vegas was chosen as a pod site because of population density in the 600-mile radius, as well as proximity to airports and major interstates.

There are two full-time PEP support employees in Las Vegas and 12 part-time employees available to mobilize the pod.

All of the part-time employees in Las Vegas are retired firefighters with quick-response experience.

"We're a national asset available 24 hours a day and 365 days a year," he said. "We would like to avoid incidents of catastrophic proportion, but at FEMA we always prepare for the worst of the worst."

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.