Toxic training drill tests emergency responders
Flares stuck in a bucket of sand simulated one of the vehicle fires during Sunday's emergency training exercise. Photos by Ezra Blair
A man driving a pickup truck carrying toxic chemicals has a diabetic attack, causing him to swerve erratically into oncoming traffic. He runs three other cars off the road before finally crashing into the woods. The chemicals spill and catch on fire. Another vehicle bursts into flames, and two other drivers are trapped in their mangled cars.
Island emergency rescue personnel from Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and Tisbury respond. All of the injured must be assessed on-scene and transported to medical facilities, and anyone who came in contact with the toxic chemicals, including a group of bystanders, must be decontaminated. The hospital goes into lockdown to avoid further contamination.
That was the scenario at an incident command training exercise Sunday morning.
Rescue personnel attend to victims who feigned a variety of injuries.
The staged accident took place on Sanderson Way, just past the Martha's Vineyard High School athletic fields. The injured were volunteers who wore clipboards around their necks that described the nature of their feigned injuries. Phrases such as "on fire," and "extricate" were written in bright orange spray paint on the sides of the vehicles. The car fires were simulated with flares stuck in buckets of sand.
Led by the Oak Bluffs fire department, the drill was designed to simulate a disaster to train emergency responders in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The system, designed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is intended to grow or shrink along with an incident, allowing more resources to be smoothly added into the system when required, and released when no longer needed.
The drill gave emergency responders the opportunity to work together with numerous departments from different towns. It also provided an opportunity for Martha's Vineyard Hospital personnel to deploy its incident command system and practice for a disaster that required patients to be decontaminated.
Dennis Alley, Oak Bluffs fire chief, said that the training exercise was a success, but more importantly, a learning experience. "I think it was a very good experience for everyone involved," he said. "There were things that went real well and things that we still need to be work on, but that is why you drill. By training like this we can work the kinks out so that we are better prepared for the real thing."
Among the things that went well, Chief Alley said that all the various departments all worked well together. "The participation from everybody was great," he said. "Everybody worked really well together, which is important."
A special de-con tent was erected at the hospital to decontaminate patients transported from the simulated accident scene.
Chief Alley said that the drill helped show how resources can be better allocated. He said that communication could also be improved. "We definitely learned a lot," he said. "For example, we realized that we needed more people at the hospital for a situation like that.
"As far as other things that we can continue to improve on, one was the incident command situation. We can still tighten that up a little bit by taking more time for transmissions on the radio, and getting the job done in a much more timely fashion."
Chief Alley stressed the importance of finding flaws during training exercises. "We made mistakes, but that is why you drill," he said. "It is how you improve, and make sure those mistakes aren't being made when it really counts."
John Schilling, Tisbury fire chief, also called the drill a success. "Everybody from all the different agencies interacted really well, and that is what you have to start out with," he said. "It was a very positive attitude, and everybody was helping out."
As for areas that could stand some improvement, Chief Schilling cited many of the same concerns as Chief Alley. "Communication is always an issue," he said. "We always need to make sure that everyone is on the same page."
Dr. Timothy Tsai, director of the hospital Emergency Services Department, said the drill provided a valuable chance for the hospital to test both its equipment and its emergency procedures. Last month, the hospital received a new mobile de-con tent that is designed to decontaminate patients in the event of a chemical or biological disaster. During the drill, the tent became the clearinghouse for contaminated patients who were transported from the accident scene to the hospital. The exercise also gave the hospital a chance to deploy its incident command system, which puts the entire hospital under lockdown.
Dr. Tsai said, "This was the first use of hospital's incident command system… and as you would expect, there were problems that were identified, but overall, I think the drill went very, very well."
Dr. Tsai said that the hospital and other Island emergency personnel will continue to conduct training exercises in the future. The hospital is required to conduct two drills a year. He said that not all the drills would be as large as the one last weekend, but that each exercise will help the Island improve its emergency preparedness.
"I think this exercise was a good first step, and a precedent that bodes well for cooperation along the same lines in the future," said Dr. Tsai.