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Disaster exercise tests the skills of East Coast air reserves

When the hulking C-130 transport planes landed Saturday at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, the staging of an emergency response exercise took on the atmosphere of a Hollywood action movie set.

"Casualties" from some imagined disaster on the East Coast, many wearing makeup to simulate wounds, with fake IVs and oxygen masks hooked to some, were met by Air Force Reserve personnel who ferried them by bus to emergency medical personnel in the nearby hangar. Some of the victims -- in reality area Civil Air Patrol cadets and Defense Department personnel who were flown in from bases in New York and Massachusetts -- were then transported to local hospitals.

This massive, long-planned exercise -- called Lycoming Reach -- tested the reserve station's ability to receive an influx of casualties in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack on the East Coast.

Pittsburgh's location, along with its premier medical system, make it a crucial component of the disaster response infrastructure, according to officials.

The 911th Air Lift Wing of the U.S. Air Force Reserve partnered with more than 15 federal, state and local government agencies, as well as nonprofits like the Salvation Army. It was the largest such exercise undertaken at the base, and involved between 800 and 1,000 participants among Pittsburgh, Buffalo, N.Y., and Westover, Mass.

"We're on the other side of the wall from cities that are highest risk," said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who was at the event not as a congressman, but in his role as a member of the Navy Reserve Medical Service Corps. He listed Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., as high-risk cities that could use Pittsburgh's medical infrastructure in the event of a disaster that left their own systems overwhelmed.

"It would really call together all the resources from the military and civilian medical sectors," he said.

Describing the logistics as complex, especially with the Navy Reserve operating at the base for the first time, he lauded the work of all the different organizations coming together. "It's one team, one fight."

Personnel from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency were also on site, ready to call in additional resources from the region if needed.

"It's real practice. We're not making up capabilities, we're really testing the capabilities of what does exist here," said Philip G. Barker, PEMA Western Area office director. "This is the prime location to bring victims."

Despite the scale of the exercise, the atmosphere was relaxed, with many of the "victims" appearing bored while lying on their cots waiting to be treated, or being ferried around on a stretcher. All participants in the exercise received lunch courtesy of the Salvation Army.

With plans for the exercise in development since November, the smoothness of the event did not come as a surprise to planners.

"Everything is going great. We're killing a lot of birds with one stone here," said David Rossi, Area Emergency Manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which holds similar exercises every three years. "This is the biggest one we've ever done."

The 911th Air Lift Wing's base has been slated for closure a number of times when the Pentagon has faced budget cuts, but fierce political support for the base -- particularly from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; and Mr. Murphy -- has kept the base funded for the time being.

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