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This is a drill: Disaster exercise puts responders to the test

Olivia fire fighters cut open an over-turned vehicle and extricate this “victim.” Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

RENVILLE — Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative takes pride in having put together a full-scale crisis management plan, complete with a specially-trained first responder team and employees well versed on what to do if disaster strikes.

It was all put to the test on Thursday afternoon.

“It’s something we’ve laboratory tested. Now it’s time for the real deal,” said Kelvin Thompsen, CEO and President of SMBSC as a large-scale disaster drill got underway at the factory site on the east side of Renville.

Fire fighters and emergency responders from Renville, Olivia, Sacred Heart, Danube and Prinsburg joined area law enforcement, ambulance crews and others in one of the largest disaster drills ever conducted in the county. More than 100 emergency responders are estimated to have participated, according to Mike Hennen, emergency management director for Renville County.

The afternoon drill was based on a scenario that a tornado struck the sugar beet facility. Rescuers reaching the scene had to find and help more than 30 volunteer victims located about the grounds, some in over turned vehicles; some trapped by debris; others burned by a spill of chemicals. A few hours after the tornado struck, Thompsen and Todd Geselius, vice president of agriculture, told reporters that there had been one fatality and 35 injuries among the estimated 200 employees at the site when the tornado struck.

Planning for the afternoon of staged mayhem began months ago, according to Brandy Fisher, safety director for SMBSC.

“Extremely pleased,” said Fisher after the drill. “Our guys took it seriously, and did what they were trained to do.”

The drill was equally important for the training it provided to the area emergency crews that participated, according to Hennen and Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable. The various departments rehearsed their own procedures for dealing with the challenges they would face in a real emergency of this scale. It was also an opportunity to test communication among the different departments, and the county’s new, mobile command center.

Putting the ability to respond to the test in a drill has a very real benefit, Thompsen pointed out at the start of the drill. Being prepared and knowing how to respond can save lives and reduce injuries to those working at the site in a real disaster. “That’s why we are doing this,” he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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