WEST POINT, N.Y., July 28, 2011 -- At times it seemed almost too real. West Point community members cried out for help as fire and emergency personnel moved purposefully to neutralize a hazardous material spill. Toxic chemicals gushed and flames erupted as first responders donned protective gear and moved casualties to safety.

Thankfully, it wasn’t real. But during the emergency preparedness exercise July 21, amidst the smoke, fire and water hoses blasting the North Dock area, Acting Fire Chief Thomas Acacia allowed himself to crack a brief smile.

“I actually smiled during the exercise when I saw a woman and her infant come through our decontamination corridor,” Acacia admitted. “It’s not very often you will see an incident commander smile during a real event or an exercise, but when I saw the baby, a vision of my daughter flashed into my mind. It really solidified for me the importance of our jobs and why we chose this profession.”

That smile may never have transpired if he wasn’t already pleased by what he saw.

“I was extremely impressed with our response, tactical decisions and mitigation activities,” Acacia said. “Since this was a training event, I had several key positions at the top of the Incident Management Team filled by personnel who were performing at a level which exceeds their current positions. I was extremely impressed with their decisions and the strategies they employed.”

“The depth of knowledge and experience throughout the ranks of the Fire Department was showcased yesterday and I am extremely proud of all my guys and the professionalism they demonstrated,” he said.

The exercise conducted from July 18-21, dubbed Dragon-Slayer 2011, demonstrated many examples of professionalism for West Point and the local, county and state agencies participating.

These agencies included ambulances from Tuxedo, Warwick, Woodbury, Cornwall, Town of Newburgh, Mobile Life and Orange County EMS; fire support from Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., with Hazmat; and police support from the New York State Police. Mutual-aid partners in Highland Falls, Fort Montgomery and Cornwall-on-Hudson provided back up support.

“West Point’s success is attributed in part to the outstanding support these agencies give us,” Acacia said. “As for the fire department, we continually train with different agencies to include federal assets and our neighbors from Orange County, as well as the surrounding counties, to collectively hone our skills. Every agency has their strengths and weaknesses, and through joint venture training events such as this exercise, we all learn from each other so the end state yields a more prepared first responder team.”

Christopher Hennen, West Point’s plans officer, said coordination and communication are essential elements of an effective, efficient emergency response.

“Operators will insist that communications reliability and redundancy are among the most troubling aspects of emergency management,” Hennen said. “Yet there’s no simple solution or ‘silver bullet’ to solve the communications problems that plague responders. Radios and cell phones are temperamental creatures; they malfunction at the most inopportune times.”

“That said, the importance West Point emergency response professionals place on multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional training and interoperability have enabled them to respond quickly, capably and cooperatively to a range of natural and man-made hazards,” he said. “That was demonstrated yesterday.”

Hennen said there was much to be pleased with but still more work needs to be done. The after action review and improvement plan will shape the development of the subsequent emergency training and exercise plan, while the installation’s Emergency Management Working Group will track progress on the resolution of all substantive exercise deficiencies.

“This should result in a more informed, more capable and more confident team of responders,” Hennen said.