Preparing for the worst

County conducts disaster drill to test readiness

LIVINGSTON—“You are all migrant workers,” said Deputy Emergency Medical Services Coordinator Sue VanEgghen. She was speaking to the 11 volunteer actors who were about to play victims for last Saturday’s emergency preparedness drill. “You speak limited English… so don’t offer a lot of information.” Another drill coordinator tried to corral stray volunteers to give them their “symptoms.”

The drill, held Saturday, September 27 at the squat brick Paul J. Proper, Sr. Public Safety Building, involved every branch of Columbia County emergency services. The large main room buzzed with conversation.

The scenario was that a nerve agent in the form of an insecticide had been accidentally sprayed on the wrong field. Farm workers had entered the field and were exhibiting symptoms of poisoning, such as severe headaches, blurry vision, nausea and cardiac issues.

Chuck Kaiser, the emergency preparedness coordinator for the Columbia County Department of Health, said that the drill was “designed for a realistic thing that could occur in the county.” This type of emergency would require a response that would include bringing to the scene something called a Chempack, which is part of the Strategic National Stockpile.

Mr. Kaiser designed the drill, which involved county fire departments, EMS teams, the county Emergency Management Office, the Sheriff’s Office, State Police, HAZMAT teams, Columbia Memorial Hospital staff, county 911, county and state Departments of Health, and many volunteers.

Captain Thom Lanphear, emergency management liaison for the Sheriff’s Office and the public information officer for this event, said that each department was being evaluated “by someone in their own field” and that the event was a training and education drill as much as preparedness assessment. The first responders were not told in advance of the details of the drill. This was the first drill of its kind in the county since the emergency preparedness plan was updated roughly a year ago.

The victim-actors wore tags on lanyards with symptoms and basic information about the character they were playing. One card listed the symptoms as “SLUDGE.” Ms. VanEgghen explained that this meant “salivating, sweating—producing moisture. You don’t have to actually do that.”

With everybody briefed and all plans in place, the team of evaluators and victim-actors drove to an apple and pear orchard in Livingston. The neon green, yellow, blue and orange safety vests looked incongruous set against the still ponds, apple trees and fall foliage. Real farm workers stood on ladders picking apples just down the road.

“Everybody ready?” asked Ms. VanEgghen, who also played the part of the property owner. The victim-actors nodded. “I’m dead,” said one.

The drill began with a call to a 911 dispatcher at 9:53 a.m. Although the dispatchers advised it was only a drill, the coordinators attempted to make it as realistic as possible without causing unnecessary alarm or inconvenience. “We decided not to have lights and sirens on,” said Dr. Arun Nandi, chief medical director for the Columbia Memorial Emergency Department, who is also Greenport Rescue Squad Director and county Emergency Medical Services chief.

To add to the drill’s realism, the first 911 call reported only two victims. “That’s what happens,” explained Dr. Nandi. “It escalates.” As the drill progressed, the number of reported victims rose to eight and then eleven, with one deceased.

The first emergency responder on the scene was Livingston Fire Chief Paul Jahns, IV, who arrived six minutes after the 911 call and became the incident coordinator. After a brief conversation with Ms. VanEgghen, Mr. Jahns returned to his vehicle to radio for additional county emergency services.

Asked why Mr. Jahns had not gone directly to the victim, Mark Waldemaier, an evaluator from the state Department of Health, said, “One of the first things they do is look at the safety situation and start triaging…. He doesn’t want to become a victim himself.”

Captain Lanphear said, “If they scoop the people and run with them,” ambulances might be contaminated.

Soon over 20 vehicles lined the road next to the orchard. As a group of firefighters loaded a victim onto a yellow stretcher, one firefighter yelled to another victim several feet away, “Hey, you alive?” The victim responded, “No hablo ingles.” Both firefighter and victim laughed. Some victims feigned vomiting or lay completely still with their eyes closed.

“Once the EMS is called, there’s a whole procedure and plan that goes into effect automatically,” said Captain Lanphear. But there is room to improvise. Firefighters extended their truck’s telescopic ladder horizontally and threw a large tarp over it, creating a tent in which they could do an initial decontamination of victims by feigning to spray them with a fire hose. As another example, in most cases, the protocol requires separate ambulances for each victim. In an emergency as large as this, that protocol was abandoned in favor of transporting all of the victims to the hospital as efficiently as possible. According to Captain Lanphear, this decision was “made on the fly.”

Despite these improvisations, Captain Lanphear later reported that in the post-drill debriefing, one concern had been that first responders actually went too much “by the book” rather than reacting to the extenuating circumstances of a large-scale disaster.

Evaluators walked through the orchard. “They’re timing everything,” said Captain Lanphear. Many of the evaluators took photographs or videos.

Some of these photographs will end up on the county Emergency Management Facebook page, which the county used to disseminate information to the public during the 2012 TCI explosion in West Ghent, as well as during winter storms and for road closures. “After TCI we had over 200,000 hits on it. It was humungous,” Capt. Lanphear said.

As the scale of the fake disaster became apparent, Chempack and HazMat (hazardous materials) teams from Columbia and Greene counties were called in and ambulances began transporting victims to Columbia Memorial Hospital. A yellow decontamination tent was set up in the Emergency Department parking lot and victims were sent through the tent on a sled that ran over a track similar to a conveyor belt.

While there was no official count, Capt. Lanphear speculated that the drill probably involved 100 to 150 people. When asked how much the drill cost to run, he said that “for county residents, the cost is minimal.”

He went on to explain that the “Livingston Fire HazMat team is volunteer, so they’re giving up their Saturday to be here… the cost of [law enforcement] being here is covered by a grant,” which requires the county to perform the drill. The money comes from the federal the Department of Homeland Security.

As the drill wound down and the tent was packed up, the people involved began to go into the hospital for a debriefing called the “hot wash.”

“Things went well in the field. We had a few issues, but we identified them,” said Dr. Nandi.

Capt. Lanphear described the drill as “very educational.” There will be another drill in November that will incorporate improvements suggested during the hot wash.

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