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FEMA reviewing county's preparedness

It's here to see if the county is complying with federal guidelines to train firefighters to deal with an emergency at the nuclear plant.

By RICHARD RAEKE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2003

An official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is visiting Citrus County today to review training records for firefighters after reporting in December that they were not prepared for an emergency at the Progress Energy nuclear plant.

"I am concerned with the training being done in Citrus County. To date only 19 of 228 firefighters in the county have received radiological monitoring training or retraining," FEMA official Helen Wilgus wrote Sheriff Jeff Dawsy in December.

"Even if we were to use the 49 individuals that you have indicated as trained (30 being only two hours of observation during a drill, not training) you still will not have trained even 25 percent of your staff," she wrote in the letter, summarizing her visit to Citrus.

In that letter, Wilgus concluded that she could not tell the state that the county was in compliance with applicable training guidelines.

County officials are confident that they will fare better with FEMA this time. Since January, the county has trained 165 of roughly 200 firefighters, and the remainder are scheduled to complete the class in the coming months, said Jim Soukup, director of the Emergency Operations Center, which the Sheriff's Office oversees.

Why it has taken until now for the volunteer firefighters to receive radiological training is the matter of some debate.

Public safety officials say it is difficult for volunteers to find the time for additional classes. But Bill Hunt, the former head of Citrus County's radiological emergency preparedness, said that other local and federal officials shrugged off the importance of the training.

The latest review of the training records is "very routine, very standard," said Mary Hudak, a spokeswoman with FEMA. "Everybody's making a much bigger deal out of this than it is."

But to Hunt it is a big deal.

Since 1999, Hunt said, he encountered ambivalence from public safety officials when he emphasized the need for radiological training for volunteer firefighters. Equally, he said, FEMA wouldn't push the county on the issue.

Hunt said he was forced to resign in March after telling Wilgus that only 19, not the 49 firefighters as indicated by the records, had undergone the appropriate training.

The Sheriff's Office said Hunt resigned on his own after an internal investigation charged him with willful disregard of duties, untruthfulness in an official inquiry and failure to maintain professional relationships with other agencies.

"It's a political beehive," Hunt said. "I blew it open and paid the consequences. At least I know the firefighters will be trained."

The training consists of an initial eight-hour class in radiological monitoring followed by a four-hour refresher each year. Firefighters are taught to avoid contaminated areas and use radiological monitors and wash down stations.

The county's director of public safety, Charles Poliseno, said that after FEMA's December visit, he and his staff met with volunteer firefighters and emphasized the need for radiological training.

The basic problem in getting them trained was time, he said. In addition to radiological classes, volunteer firefighters have to take refresher courses in first aid, CPR and now weapons of mass destruction, as well as 20 hours of basic training a year. Additionally, Poliseno said, the firefighters are spread thin because of a need for more volunteers.

In past years, radiological training was met with little or no response. Hunt said in November 2000, two of five classes were canceled because of no response, one class had two students, and no one showed up for another scheduled class.

In January 2001, Hunt wrote Poliseno, saying it was imperative to start training firefighters in preparation for a scheduled emergency exercise in May.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mike Schlaudraff, the county's fire services director, wrote the county's fire chiefs that "Due to recent events, state and federal assessment requests have brought to light that the Citrus County Fire Service is way behind on our radiological training . . . This MUST be addressed immediately."

The number of trained emergency responders dropped in the following year, Hunt said.

"This could be a big problem in the event that we have an emergency at the Crystal River nuclear plant. This is a major problem that has to be addressed ASAP. I have sent out numerous memos in reference to this problem and was assured it would be taken care of before the first of the year when the FEMA report is due," Hunt wrote in a January 2002 memo sent to Poliseno, Soukup, the Citrus County Commission, FEMA and Progress Energy.

-- Richard Raeke can be reached at 564-3623 or Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.

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