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Video: UCF Toxic Knight Emergency Training. UCF hosts regional emergency preparedness exercise. Video by Arnold Godoy, Central Florida Future. Video by Arnold Godoy, Central Florida Future

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Around 1,500 emergency personnel and volunteers from across Central Florida converged on campus Thursday for a full-scale emergency preparedness exercise.

The exercise, a collaborative effort between UCF and more than 24 Central Florida emergency service agencies, was held to test new disaster response techniques and the effectiveness of inter-agency communication in emergency scenarios.

"There are literally dozens upon dozens of organizations here," said UCF Police Chief Richard Beary. "We have law enforcement participation, we have fire [department] participation, we have emergency management, and we have all the hospitals participating. An exercise of this magnitude takes months and months to prepare for; it's a huge undertaking."

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The emergency scenario involved two unidentified gunmen taking hostages and releasing a harmful chemical agent on campus. Police, fire and medical teams were tasked with subduing the gunmen, rescuing the hostages, identifying and removing the chemical agent and treating the many civilian volunteers who were 'injured' as part of the exercise.

"What we know is that your survival if you're injured depends on the training of first responders. My job is to make sure that our first responders are the best trained that they can be so they can save your life," Beary said.

Emergency personnel were shadowed by observers in white vests who recorded their performance for later review. Information collected by these observers is later used to improve how local agencies respond to emergencies.

"We look to see how everybody is working together," said Deputy Chief Pat McCabe of Winter Park Fire Rescue. "We look to see how everyone is handling the patient surge, how they're going to get [patients] out of here. You want to have something called a unified command: Any time you bring together a bunch of agencies, whether it's police, fire or any kind of county entities, you want to have those people mesh together so that everyone is working together and following the same orders."

A tactic unique to this exercise allowed victims in dangerous areas to quickly receive life-saving medical care. By working closely with police, first responders were able to reach injured victims before the gunmen were apprehended.

"One of the biggest lessons that our whole region is learning is the immediate evacuation of patients -- we don't let patients linger until we know an area is safe. We go in with the police while they're off chasing the bad guy, in an area known as the warm zone, and we collect patients and bring them back to a forward collection point. From there they're treated or sent to a hospital," McCabe said.

Some difficulties arose when first responders discovered that the concrete buildings on campus disrupted radio communications, but the complications were quickly circumvented.

"We had a few communication hiccups," said Manuel Soto, the emergency manager for Orlando. "[Our] radios work well when you're outdoors, but when you're in a concrete facility sometimes trying to reach out becomes difficult. We reverted back to texting and cellphones to work around the issue.

"This is the kind of reason why we do these exercises to begin with, why we train."

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Bernard Wilchusky is Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @facilesweateror email him at BernardW@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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