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Disaster drill tests emergency response teams

By Teresa Herriman, The Courier-Herald

I'm standing in a bus barn in Bonney Lake on a beautiful Saturday with more than 50 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, preparing for a disaster drill.

It's nearly 9 a.m.

More than 200 professionals have gathered for a multi-agency training exercise at Mountain View Junior High to practice a mass casualty incident. The drill will simulate a significant event resulting in numerous victims, disrupting normal emergency and health care services and requiring multi-jurisdictional mutual aid.

Communities the size of Bonney Lake and the surrounding area rely on each other to assist during disasters of this type.

Drills are an important opportunity for personnel from various jurisdictions and agencies to practice working together before they meet at a real emergency.

The noise level among the clusters of fidgeting firefighters escalates as the group waits for instruction.

Five minutes before the briefing starts, the Metro Special Response Team (SRT) enters the large bay. Dark, camouflaged shapes seep into the sea of firefighter blue.

Sumner School District Public Information Officer Ann Cook and East Pierce Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Dan Packer are giving members of the media some last-minute instructions.

We are to wear our "Media" vests and red "Observer" baseball caps at all times and stay with either Cook or Packer during the exercise.

Although the vest has "Media" prominently displayed, it doesn't appear to have a bulls eye anywhere. Still, I feel strangely conspicuous.

9 a.m.

Dave Wakefield, assistant chief of training and planning for East Pierce Fire & Rescue, calls out.

He briefly outlines the goals for the day. Primary among them is to practice safe and effective emergency response.

Wakefield tells us an incident of this type "would bring most of us together."

I realize with a start, he means me, too.

Along with the numerous responders, school district and fire dispatch officials are also at the scene. Others include observers and evaluators from San Francisco to King County, who will monitor the event to provide feedback and analysis.

There are more than 50 volunteer victims from Mountain View and Bates Fire Academy. As instructions are given, the volunteers are off somewhere applying make-up to represent gun-shot and assault victims.

Cook said 145 people and 35 units are participating today.

Wakefield gives final housekeeping rules for the drill.

When in radio contact, be sure to use the word "drill" so as not to alarm citizens listening on scanners.

If an actual emergency were to occur during the drill, he said, the event would be stopped.

Oh, and, by the way, the police weapons have been checked. There is no live ammunition in them, Wakefield explained.

The crowd laughs, but I'm not sure why.

The chief takes a few questions then sends the attentive group off to start the drill.

"Listen up so you are ready to roll," he adds.

It will be a game of "hurry up and wait" for most of them.

Packer drives Cook, Palermo and me from the staging area at the Sumner School District Transportation Services building to the site of today's drill.

On the way, he explains the concept of the Incident Command System (ICS).

It is an organizational structure used to command, control and coordinate the use of resources and personnel who have responded to the scene of an emergency. Police and fire commanders establish a unified command, putting decision-makers together to cooperatively respond, Packer said.

From there, police and firefighters each communicate with their respective elements.

Cook said the school district's disaster plan is modeled after the ICS and used during any type of school emergency.

The unified command concept is used by emergency response teams whenever there is a major incident such as a bus crash, hazardous materials spill or, as today, an armed intruder barricaded in a school.

Today's simulation was designed to test the full spectrum of emergency response teams, including the Metro SRT, a special unit - sometimes called the Metro SWAT team - created to assist small agencies working with limited resources. It is a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional team consisting of personnel from law enforcement agencies in Bonney Lake, Sumner, Milton, Fife, Orting, Gig Harbor, DuPont and Steilacoom. The Metro SRT also works in partnership with the Puyallup Special Operations Group.

The training exercise was initiated at the request of East Pierce Fire & Rescue to test inter-agency fire, emergency services, police and school district emergency response plans.

Tri-district Fire, the Bonney Lake Police Department and Sumner School District are the lead agencies for the drill. The Tri-district include East Pierce Fire & Rescue, District 12 and District 20.

Other participating agencies include Riverside, Milton, Edgewood (District 8), Orting (District 18) and Sumner fire districts, Puyallup Fire, Metro SRT, Good Samaritan Hospital and the Fire-Communications Dispatch Center. The private ambulance company for the area, American Medical Response, also participated.

Assistant Chief of Medical Emergency Services Russ McCallion is helping to organize the event.

He explains that because large-scale incidents happen so infrequently, "nobody becomes proficient by sheer experience."

"That's why training is so important," he said.

There are several components being tested today.

The first is to observe and improve communication on the scene.

Police and fire departments not only operate in a different world, they communicate using different radio frequencies. The unified command should help mitigate some of those issues.

A second goal is to practice establishing triage procedures to treat and transport patients, distributing them equally to area hospitals.

Good Samaritan Hospital will assist. They are the Pierce County Disaster Medical Control Center and are involved in any major response situation. During the exercise, they will direct the injured to the various hospitals.

Despite the fact the drill is at a school, the school district won't have an active role in today's activities. This event is primarily for the emergency response teams, Cook explains.

However, some staff, such as Mountain View Assistant Principal Laurie Cleveland and Security Officer Jim Tomlinson will participate. Principal Dan Anderson is one of the observers.

Cook said each school has a crisis plan in the event of a flood, bomb threat or, like today, an intruder.

The school district works with law enforcement and emergency personnel to ensure maximum cooperation.

Drills such as these, Cook said, help to create a better understanding between the schools and the response teams. Although, most of the emergencies experienced by the schools are weather-related, she added.

The district Web site (www.sumner.wednet.edu) contains information regarding the district's emergency plans. There is even an option to sign-up for e-mail alerts when emergencies occur.

Mountain View was chosen for the simulation because of its location and access.

"We are happy anytime there's a chance for emergency response crews to be in our buildings," Cook said. "We want them in there as often as it takes."

9:15 a.m.

We meet Chris McAfee in the mobile dispatch unit. It is a van equipped with multiple data computers, battery packs, radios and room for two dispatchers.

"We've had the capability to dispatch remotely for a number of years," Packer said. But before the van was purchased two years ago, the crew lugged umbrellas and shoulder packs to set-up at a site.

The van is dispatched to help absorb the enormous amount of communication that occurs at a large incident, leaving the main dispatch to handle all other emergency calls.

It can even serve as a back-up for the dispatch center, McAfee said.

She points out that the van and everything in it was either donated or purchased through grants.

9:30 a.m.

The mobile dispatch unit gets its first call.

The disaster drill has started.

A young man inside the 700-student school has dialed 9-1-1 from a cell phone. He reports he's been shot and the shooter is still in the school.

The dispatcher takes the information and alerts the appropriate units.

The assailant is a student with a baseball bat and a loaded hand gun, he reports.

A second call comes in from another student on a cell phone.

Often some of the first calls received by dispatch alerting them to an emergency are from citizens with cell phones.

Within minutes, the school is in lockdown and the police and emergency units have arrived.

Students are beginning to emerge from the building. Some are injured. One student lays still in the grass near one of the doors.

There are mounting reports of dead and critically injured victims.

As medical personnel assist the injured, police are gathering information.

They determine the perpetrator is still somewhere inside the school and order emergency crews to evacuate. Students are quickly loaded aboard the response unit and whisked away.

Off-site, the police and fire chiefs are already setting-up incident command. Because the building is not secure, they are holding other resources until the SRT team arrives.

9:45 a.m.

Cook said had this been a real emergency, terrified parents would already be arriving in droves. Part of her job is to provide information and help keep them calm.

Media helicopters would also be circling.

The command center must control the increasing chaos.

In an emergency, a logistics station would be established to provide food for the teams and buses to shuttle personnel. A planning station would be planning for the next shift. Should the emergency stretch into days, a financial station could rent equipment.

9:50 a.m.

The Special Response Team arrives in full riot gear.

"Let's dance," one of the camouflaged figures announced as they headed down the hall.

The team includes medics who begin evaluating and evacuating injured students as the rest of the team secures each doorway.

They establish the gym as the primary casualty center.

The team is methodical. They must clear every room, a task complicated by the fact each room is locked as part of the school's lockdown procedure.

Tomlinson goes in with the team, providing important logistical information and updating school officials.

The process is helped dramatically by the use of technology.

Mountain View is equipped with an array of digital cameras. Images from the cameras can be displayed on laptops with access to the system. The police and sheriff agencies all have access using the laptops they carry in their cars.

The images are saved to provide valuable documentation. This is a crime scene after all.

The police are also using the Pierce Responder, a program that puts valuable information about every school building in Pierce County in the hands of enforcement and emergency agencies. The schools have input logistical information, aerial maps, floorplans, sprinkler shut-offs and emergency phone numbers into the system.

Most importantly, it provides a detailed, pre-planned strategy for an emergency. Plans cover everything from designating areas where officials can stage emergency vehicles to specific areas where students would be evacuated. The school district and the emergency agencies constantly update the information to make sure it's current.

"We could even update it today," Cook pointed out.

Packer agreed. "It's a powerful tool," he said.

Bonney Lake Police Chief Bryan Jeter hopes to test the school response plan they put into effect last year. As base station for the Metro SRT, he is also interested in feedback from them.

"We train yearly on school situations," he said. "Trying to coordinate a response is critical. If we could have a million of these and never have a real one, we'd be happy."

10:18 a.m.

The scene is not yet secure. We don't know if there is a single shooter or multiple assailants.

As SRT moves through the building, the area near the gym is secure enough to allow the command center to move to the parking lot at the school. A parade of emergency vehicles from the neighboring communities begins.

Ambulances begin transporting patients to area hospitals.

This is a crucial time for Cook.

She is the one who faces parents.

"One of our big drills would be parent-student reunification and student relocation," she said.

Patient tracking is being tested today.

As part of triage, patients are evaluated based on the severity of their injuries and given a color-coded tag containing pertinent patient information. Red tags mean the patient is critical. They are assisted first. Yellow tags mean the patient is injured, but can wait. Green tags indicate the least injured. A black tag is bad.

Transport officials log where each patient is taken and by which ambulance crew. This information will be transferred to the Pierce County Disaster Medical Control Center and the school district for Cook to share with parents.

10:37 a.m.

An announcement over the school intercom says the building is clear. All students, staff and teachers are told to report to the cafeteria.

Cook said, school officials will begin the laborious task of accounting for each and every student, teacher and staff member who may have been on campus.

10:40 a.m.

The Red Cross arrives to help coordinate meal service and provide coffee and water to emergency personnel.

11 a.m.

The morning disaster drill is over, but there is still much to do.

Observers will provide initial feedback during a lunch break, then the drill will start over. Anything worth doing once is worth doing twice, right?

Observer John Sinclair, a nationally recognized expert in emergency services disaster response and multiple casualty incidents, said the drill went very well. He was especially impressed with the support between the different agencies.

"I was surprised at the level of cooperation that existed between the fire departments, law enforcement and the school district," he said. "That is the level of community spirit that should be modeled by every community in the country."

He also complimented the organizers, saying it was a well-prepared drill.

McCallion said he gives credit to the school district. They were willing to take on a difficult subject for schools.

"We want to be better prepared for the unthinkable," he said. "I think it was a very proactive and appropriate thing to do.

"There were lots of minor lessons learned, but I think we are head-and-shoulders from where we were."

Sinclair added, "All of our public agencies need to work together for the community and I think that's what they do up there (in Bonney Lake). It's impressive."

Teresa Herriman can be reached at therriman@courierherald.com

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