Responders Put At Risk Needlessly

It appears none of the local first responders who participated in Federal Emergency Management Agency training sessions that were much riskier than they thought suffered ill effects. There have been no reports of harm coming to any of the about 9,600 people involved from throughout the country.

That does not change the fact that a very serious error was made — one that could have been deadly. Worse, a similar mistake in the future might not have a happy ending.

As we have reported, first responders from the Brooke County Emergency Management Agency, the Steubenville Fire Department and East Liverpool Hospital were among those who received the training from FEMA. They were involved in exercises involving ricin, to which exposure can be fatal.

FEMA training was supposed to use a low-toxicity version of ricin. But late last year, the agency learned high-potency ricin had been shipped to it by a supplier. It was used in training exercises.

Fortunately, very effective personal protection gear was worn by those involved in the training sessions. That protected participants from coming in contact with the ricin.

Stop and consider the number of people involved, however: nearly 10,000. It is something of a miracle that, believing the substance they were handling was not very dangerous, no one actually did come in contact with it.

FEMA officials are having the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigate what went wrong. In the meantime, training exercises using potentially deadly substances have been suspended. At some point, they probably will be resumed.

Clearly, human error occurred at both the ricin supplier and FEMA. The wrong substance was shipped, then, for months, no one at FEMA noticed. Someone needs to be held accountable. This is not a situation in which a “mistakes will happen” response is acceptable.

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