After decades of neglecting the subject, Delaware County’s emergency response agencies, through a training exercise planned for this Halloween, finally hope to address a long-standing potential crisis-in-waiting: flesh-eating zombies.
And they’re reaching out for help from the community.
The idea stems from a Center for Disease Control publication, “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” which percolated throughout the Internet after the U.S. government agency posted it to the web last May.
The CDC guide is a winking acknowledgement of the living dead’s increasing pop culture footprint (recent works include the comedy/horror film “Zombieland” and the popular AMC television series “The Walking Dead.”) But the guide actually contains important emergency preparedness concepts, such as making a family plan in advance of any possible disaster.
A group of emergency response officials hope to take the CDC’s idea and use it to spice up a required annual training exercise that helps prepare emergency responders to contain hazardous material (“hazmat”) spills. While the event is still in early planning stages, officials tentatively hope to host the training event somewhere in town, possibly at Ohio Wesleyan University, on Oct. 31.
Zombies will take the place of the traditional hazmat “victims” that paramedics, firefighters and police typically work to “rescue” during the training scenario.
So, volunteers exposed to mysterious (and fictional) chemical agents will, with the help of make-up, become zombies. It will be up to training emergency responders, while making sure to wear proper attire to avoid direct exposure (lest they become zombies themselves) to safely direct the zombies to decontamination facilities set up in the field.
That’s in contrast to typical undead containment strategies as depicted in movies, in which zombies are usually subject to lethal force.
“They normally get blasted to pieces. But our goal is going to try to save the zombies,” said Brian Galligher, director of the Delaware County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Framing the information as anti-zombie education for the public — rather than just simple emergency preparedness — helps emergency response officials break through the clutter, Galligher said.
“You put out stuff and people just don’t pay attention to it. But you call it a zombie guide, and people look at it,” Galligher said. “And it causes some buzz.”
And Galligher hopes that buzz will help increase the number of people who agree to serve as victims, not only to increase public education, but to attract additional volunteers for the training scenario.
Whereas typically around 20 student firefighters from the Delaware Area Career Center’s training program volunteer, Galligher hopes the theme will increase that number by as much as tenfold. Organizers are also working to attract business partners to sponsor T-shirts for participants, as well as evacuation guides and candy for door-to-door distribution.
“If you have 20 volunteers, you’re decontaminating 15 people,” Galligher said. “But if we can get 200 … you can send them to the hospital, and our team can really be tested.”
The scenario will still contain crucial hazmat containment elements: scene control, prevention of cross-contamination and decontamination, Galligher said.
“It will be fun… and I think this will be something where it will cause some really good training,” he said.
Details for the exercise are still being hashed out. For instance, when asked, Galligher said organizers may allow zombies to roam throughout the community, forcing emergency response workers to track them down while preventing them from contaminating the public at large.
“That may be something we throw into it. I don’t want to give out all the things we’re going to do just yet,” he said vaguely.
Galligher did divulge his opinion on one pending decision. A reporter asked him whether participants would emulate traditional, slow, shambling zombies (a la the 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead”), or the fast, running zombies that have been portrayed in more recent films (2002’s “28 Days Later”).
“If you’re a regular person who’s been hit with hazardous materials, generally you’ve got running eyes, which limits your mobility,” he said with surprisingly little hesitation. “So, I’m thinking more along the lines of the slower ones.”