CEDAR CITY – Valley View Medical Center and the Cedar City Fire Department teamed up Tuesday with their hazardous materials unit to run a preparedness drill in the event of potential chemical disaster. The drill went on despite the looming storm clouds that threatened with lightning and rain, but the accompanying blustery winds eventually overcame the scene, causing organizers to cancel the event halfway through.
Before storm clouds ended the action, 23 screaming girls hung their heads out of the window of an Iron County school bus that appeared to have smashed into a power pole on Main Street in front of the Cedar City hospital.
Covered in fake blood, the girls embraced their roles and yelled for help as an unsuspecting audience of motorists sped by with curious, confused and sometimes horrified expressions on their faces. At one point, a Cedar City Police officer who was unaware of the drill pulled over to offer assistance.
The idea of the event was to create a scenario that would exercise the training received by community first responders within the Valley View and CCFD hazmat community and observe the implementation of skills and procedures.
Observations were carefully noted by organizers to be addressed in a debriefing after the drill regarding what was done right and where improvements could be applied in real-life situations in the future.
The scenario: A busload of 23 cheerleaders from Canyon View High School was heading to a pep rally when a can of pepper spray brought on the bus by one of the cheerleaders accidentally went off, causing the bus driver to lose control of the bus and crash into a power pole.
For the drill, a sack of flour was placed on the bus to explode on impact, giving firemen something to deal with, Valley View Communications and Public Relations Manager Becki Bronson said. The cheerleaders were told to complain of respiratory problems.
Donning hazmat suits complete with masks and backpacks loaded with breathing apparatuses to help wearers stay alive, hazardous material workers and firemen in full firefighter gear cautiously entered the scene.
Finding the girls covered in the white powder was an unexpected part of the drill for firefighters, Bronson said, so tests were run to determine what the residue was and if it was potentially hazardous.
Learning that it was only flour based on their chemical analysis, the responders continued looking for the possible cause of the respiratory issues the girls were claiming to have.
Just as firemen were able to calm the screaming teenagers and began talking them into slowly exiting the bus, a group of about six girls took off running toward the hospital, attempting to reach medical assistance faster.
The speedy girls were immediately followed by several firefighters who had no clue why they were running but understood that they had to stop them before they reached the hospital, in order to keep the contaminants quarantined.
It was an important part of the drill, Cedar City Fire Chief Mike Phillips said, explaining that in a situation involving a chemical hazard, all those on board the bus had to be properly assessed and processed before being exposed to the public, to avoid potentially spreading the contaminants and infecting others.
Because the contaminant was unknown and potentially dangerous, each cheerleader was stripped of her clothes and sprayed down with water from the fire hoses to remove whatever dangerous chemical she might have been coated with.
Actors at the scene were ‘gross decontaminated,’ which means they were stripped, flushed with water and covered with wrap. The actors wore sports bras and shorts, but in a real-life scenario, those that have a hazardous contaminant on them are stripped bare. This is so they can be safely transported to the hospital and not further contaminate people.
Just as the girls began shivering from the cold water, winds from the storm picked up and began blowing all of the firefighters’ gear around the parking lot so fast they could barely keep up with catching the items.
Trash cans, pools, tarps, signage and large pieces of equipment flew up into the air and then back and forth across the area.
The ferocious winds were quickly accompanied by bold and frequent streaks of lightning across the sky, some shooting straight down to the ground with a thunderous crash.
The drill was called off immediately to guard against potential danger to volunteers who were participating. This meant there were several stages of the drill that were unable to take place, including medical evaluations and a mock press conference to inform the public about the events that had occurred.
While there was a lot left undone, Bronson said, many valuable lessons were learned from the experience. At the debriefing afterward, she said, there were a number of pluses and minuses discussed that the agencies could learn from.
Bronson elaborated on some of the lessons learned:
What went right:
- There was great response from agencies.
- They recognized on their own that there was an unknown chemical involved and took the right precautions to not spread contaminants beyond the scene.
- Using their equipment, the Fire Department was able to test and correctly identify the hazardous chemical that was causing irritation.
What went wrong:
- Because of weather, the Fire Department was unable to use their decontamination corridor, which has PVC pipe and hoses with brushes, leaving only a fire hose to decontaminate the patients.
- The men had to adapt to current conditions because their corridor, which included small blue pools and tarps, kept blowing away.
- Lightning was a concern.
What could be improved:
- The drill helped hospital staff and the Cedar City Fire Department’s hazmat team learn how to adapt their process.
- They learned not to don the suits too soon, because protocol only allows so much time in them. They should only put them on when they are ready to decontaminate patients.
- Valley View learned to be aware of people coming from the scene straight to the hospital and to provide a secure entry that would keep those who may have a contaminant on them from entering until hazmat responders can decontaminate them. Then they can be treated inside the hospital.
This drill is one of two or three per year that are required so first responders know how to tackle disastrous situations, Phillips said. Based on observation, he said, his men did a great job handling all of the planned an unplanned elements that were thrown their way.
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