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Fort Detrick assesses emergency response after shootings

Fort Detrick (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr)

In the wake of this week’s deadly shooting, Fort Detrick personnel are extending support services and assessing how to better prepare for the future, should another crisis occur.

On a normal day, Rodger Knepper serves as a financial readiness specialist and U.S. Army emergency relief officer for the military installation in Frederick, but during a catastrophic event, he becomes manager of the Emergency Family Assistance Center (EFAC). The EFAC is activated by the post’s commander during an emergency, which happened Tuesday when authorities say a 38-year-old U.S. Navy lab tech with a gun, Fantahun Girma Woldesenbet, breached a gate at Fort Detrick around 8:45 a.m. Fort Detrick’s civilian police department fatally shot the gunman about a half-mile into the grounds, police said.

The shooter came to Fort Detrick after reportedly firing at two fellow sailors in a storage warehouse off post which is rented by the Naval Medical Research Center’s Biological Defense Research Directorate, according to the U.S. Navy and police.

As of Thursday evening, police did not release any updates on the investigation. A Frederick Police Department spokesman said one of the victims, 36-year-old Navy lab tech Carlos Portugal, was still in critical condition at the hospital. The other victim, Casey Nutt, a 26-year-old Navy lab tech, was released from the hospital Tuesday night.

Within two hours of the commander’s call, Knepper said staff on post were ready to open a hotline. Ten phones and staff to answer them are on standby for anyone in the Fort Detrick community, he said.

Those who call the 24/7 hotline at 1-833-993-1042 can be connected to a wide array of resources, including chaplains, family advocacy, military family life counseling, the legal department, housing services, children and youth services, insurance information and the American Red Cross. The hotline is set up in response to an emergency, so the number won’t be effective forever, but Army Community Services (ACS) Director Chris Watson said staff are exploring the possibility of setting up a permanent phone number.

Watson said Thursday they’ve received two calls to the hotline so far. The callers asked questions about the incident itself, he said.

“We’re here for them. We’re here to meet their needs. We’re here to assist the family members,” Watson said.

He’s been at Fort Detrick since 2013, but said Tuesday marked the first time he’d seen the EFAC activated at the post, though they’ve trained for active shooter scenarios.

“Those practices were very beneficial,” Watson said. “I think that played a big piece in also limiting the fear.”

Coincidentally, there was a plan to run an active shooter training exercise in the next few weeks, Public Affairs Supervisor Lanessa Hill said.

“Everybody did exactly what they were all trained to do,” she said.

However, that doesn’t mean Fort Detrick staff aren’t finding ways to improve.

A “very small number” of people on post said they did not hear the public announcement warning amplified from towers across Fort Detrick Tuesday, according to Hill, which was quickly resolved by increasing the volume.

“We heard people were outside and didn’t hear the towers going off,” Hill said.

While Fort Detrick does not rely solely on the PA system to warn residents of an emergency, Hill acknowledged it’s important to address any gaps in their emergency response.

“The safety and well-being of everybody on this installation is a priority,” she said.

Another way those living or working at Fort Detrick can stay up-to-date is through a Department of Defense (DOD) alert system, Hill said, but not every person on post is affiliated with DOD and able to receive those alerts. After the shooting, Hill said Fort Detrick is working to change that and also to spread the word about the mobile phone application, Digital Garrison. Anyone with a smart phone can download the app and use it to receive notifications about various Army installations, including Fort Detrick. Updates are also posted to Fort Detrick’s social media pages.

Fort Detrick serves as a military biological defense lab and has several federal civilian biodefense labs. About 10,000 military personnel and civilians work on the base in the city of Frederick.

Hill said Fort Detrick staff will be better able to evaluate its emergency response once the investigation is complete.

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