Saturday, February 7, 2009


It's colder when I get to the parking lot -  stretching out like a vast rolling, black desert before me - then when I left my home only twenty minutes before hand. Out in front the Rockingham Park racetrack, known most famously for it's heyday about forty years prior and as the set of a few gambling movies, sprawls out across the horizon.
Completely out of place in an otherwise very quiet, very 
deserted locale, are a dozen tents flapping in the cold February wind, parked emergency vehicles with an array of antennas and satellite dishes sprouting up from within them, and very serious looking men and women in body armor and military boots. 
It could have come straight out of a movie on the SciFi channel.

Captain William Warnock of the Salem Fire Department assures me that this is all part of a regularly scheduled drill for the regional Hazmat team and this time they're excited to be joined by the New Hampshire National Guard's 12th Civil Support Team - tasked with aiding municipalities handle terrorist threats and natural disasters.

Observing the drill is a team up from Georgia, members of the Army North command. They shiver as the snow begins to fall - we're expected to get between 4 and 8 inches that day - and bundle up. 
One officer, wearing two winter hats stacked on top of each other, keeps staring at me in my jeans and leather jacket out from underneath the hood of a heavy duty parka. 

"Quit pretending it's 80 degrees out," he tells me and then wanders off to shiver some more.

The drill itself - aside from being completely out of the ordinary in the empty parking lot of a racetrack - is rather mundane. Two teams comprised of local firefighters and National Guard personnel ride up to the site of the "attack" in full biohazard suits. 

As patrons walk in and out with curious looks the teams scan the air with a wide range of gear that their commander, Major Erik Fessenden, calls a state-of-the-art mix of military and civilian technology.

In the month of preparatory work leading up the joint exercise the team of observers have set up harmless substances that ought to simulate the readings of a real-world dangerous chemical agent. After getting the perfunctory questions out of the way (What is the scenario? Who is involved? How does this work? How many times annually are these teams tested?) I ask team chief Daniel Robbins if he enjoys doing this. 

"This must be fun, right?" I ask. "To put the shoe on the other foot, to test these guys and go about pretending to be on the other side."

Robbins smiles and laughs for the first time since I started talking to him.

"Sure, it's 30 degrees out, snowing and we're from Atlanta, but if you watch the guys they all have a smile on their face."