Exercise tests emergency responder capabilities

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Rural Bridgeport firefighter Justin Check and Prairie du Chien firemen Steve Rickleff and Jaaren Riebe neutralize “victim” Farshaun Ardestani at the decontamination station set up on Broadway Street Thursday as part of a hazardous spill training exercise. (Photos by Correne Martin)

Rescue workers simulated their role in a disaster response by locating and beginning evaluation of over 20 victims affected by the pseudo anhydrous ammonia leak.

The pseudo chemical leak, aka smoke machines, was simulated during the emergency training exercise thanks to machines and a generator loaned by Southwest Tech and the Prairie du Chien Fire Department. According to Emergency Management Director Jim Hackett, it wasn’t even real smoke but a steam-based, safe alternative.

Prairie du Chien High School student Grace Mullins volunteered to act out fake injuries alongside others from across the region who have an interest in criminal justice, the medical field or simply helping community responders practice their life-saving skills.

By Correne Martin

To test the capabilities of emergency personnel should a hazardous spill occur in the Prairie du Chien area, a full-scale training exercise was conducted Thursday, April 18. The simulation encompassed local fire departments, police, dispatch, EMS, correctional staff and hospitals, according to Jim Hackett, Crawford County Emergency Management director. 

In the center of the city, from Parrish Street north to Broadway Street, west of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks, the scenario simulated was that a railroad car derailed near the correctional institution’s boiler plant and was leaking anhydrous ammonia. Volunteers mimicked 22 people in the neighborhood suffering varying degrees of injuries from exposure to the toxic chemical.

The exercise began at 7 a.m. with a briefing at Hoffman Hall for the emergency workers and volunteers, including some community members, but many who were college and high school students studying criminal justice or medical science. They came from Prairie du Chien and beyond, some as far away as Monroe. 

Then, by 8:30, volunteers took their positions along street corners near the simulated spill, and a mock fog—supposed to be anhydrous ammonia—was pumped into the air. According to the exercise, the “chemical fumes” were blowing west of the tracks, affecting localized citizens. 

At 9:30 a.m., dispatch announced the official start of the drill and the emergency entities began responding, with full equipment and gear, as they would in a real-life situation. An incident command unit was erected right on Broadway Street, to include a decontamination station.

“[The injured] have to be deconned before the hospital will accept them,” Prairie du Chien Deputy Fire Chief Tim Deluhery Sr. said. “The EMS has to treat them on scene accordingly. In a real situation, we may put a tent up and have [the victims] take their clothes off. We have to decon anything that came into contact with the chemical.”

On Thursday, the Prairie du Chien and Bridgeport fire departments participated in the training, though Deluhery said, if the derailment had been real, “anyone and everyone would respond,” including departments from Bloomington, Lancaster, Eastman, MarMac, etc.

“Anhydrous ammonia freezes so fast it burns,” Bridgeport Fire Chief Russ Gillitzer said, explaining the potential for injuries. He and his volunteer firemen, like Prairie du Chien’s, provided traffic control, patient transportation, air packs and more for the exercise, to supplement the police’s and first responders’ roles. “This is realistic. This is what it really could be for us if there was a major derailment in this town.” 

He theorized the process emergency volunteers would take based on some of the training variables. 

“The wind would play a huge factor, but depending on the size of the tank or how big the leak, you may smell it for 10 to 12 blocks,” he noted. “It would be in these houses for sure; none of them are sealed up enough to prevent that.”

Gillitzer also pointed out that responders would have to go house to house assessing the residents, locating and evaluating the unresponsive and the injured. 

The Vernon County Hazmat Team participated in the exercise, dressed in full encapsulated suits and acted as the “hot zone” crew, picking up patients and delivering them to the decontamination area. In a real scenario, they would be responsible for getting to the railroad tank, shutting off the valve and plugging the hole, etc., according to Deluhery. 

“Or they might say, ‘we can’t do it’ and we’d have to call in Madison or Green Bay,” he stated.

The decon station incorporated a walk-through set-up as well as space for a stretcher to pass through, to accommodate swift showering for any type of injury, Deluhery said. On the adjacent fire trucks, there were brushes that would be used to remove the dangerous substance from the victims before they were moved on to the hospital. He said there would also be a heater inside the tent and a water heater to warm the neutralizing rinse being applied to the people who were exposed.

“The hazmat team set up their pools to catch the water (underneath). We may have to get barrels to put that water in because that would be contaminated too,” Deluhery added. 

On the other side of the decon activities, paramedics tended to the individuals’ pseudo injuries, based upon triage tags made for each at the exercise’s start. Then, each of the volunteer “victims” was taken to the Crossing Rivers Health emergency room, where providers and staff reacted accordingly in caring for the wounded. 

“This is where we learn the resources we have and it’s testing me to see what I know,” Deluhery said. “This is good practice for our working relationship as emergency responders. We’re very fortunate to have two full-time fire departments right here in our community.”

In training for disasters, such as this one involving hazardous materials, he said, “it steps everything up.” 

“It brings a lot of people out in a short period of time,” Deluhery stated. “Our evaluators (Grant County Emergency Management staff who buzzed around the scene on four-wheelers) are going to challenge us and tell us if they didn’t hear the right communication or if we [forgot] about the nursing home and informing them to shelter in place.”

By 12:30 p.m. Thursday, all exercise participants were back at Hoffman Hall to debrief and talk over the good and the bad. 

“Any exercise would not be successful if it didn’t result in learning and growing into a better unit as a whole,” Hackett shared. “Everyone I talked to learned something. The response time was really good, especially for the amount of units we had for this time of day in the middle of the week. I spoke with Sheriff Dale McCullick, and he felt our communication could improve.”

Planning for this full-scale scenario started in 2015 as a tabletop discussion among potential participants, Hackett said. It was put off though until the beginning of the current year. 

“We dusted it off and started working on it about three months ago,” he reflected.

BNSF Hazmat Manager Paul Hester said the organizers were pleasant and enthusiastic to work with and he appreciated their devotion to making the simulation happen. 

“We encourage emergency management to look at their commodity flow study annually to see what is coming through the community (via railway),” he said. “Obviously, the more toxic the chemical, the bigger the response would be.”



Hospital partakes in disaster training

By Correne Martin

Crossing Rivers Health accepted 22 simulated patients by ambulance Thursday, and either treated or transferred them according to their injuries and the hospital’s surge disaster plan. The exercise was part of the training organized by Crawford County Emergency Management in Prairie du Chien, and the emergency room remained open to the public throughout. 

According to Gary Trulson, Crossing Rivers emergency management coordinator, area hospitals, EMS and public health organizations, who make up a regional healthcare emergency readiness coalition (HERC), were aiming to facilitate an emergency drill anyway. But when they found out Crawford County was doing one, they developed their drill parallel to the county’s anhydrous ammonia leak simulation. 

“We created our own triage tags that corresponded with what we wanted to practice,” Trulson said. “We used the urgent care area as our ‘emergency room,’ triaged the [victims] as they came in and tagged them depending upon the seriousness of their injuries.”

If the scenario had been real, it would have unfolded Crossing Rivers’ disaster plan, which includes bringing in more staff. He explained that would result in an additional 10-12 registered nurses for patient care as well as an increased number of other hospital employees, who would be assigned to various facility-wide stations. Administration would become commanders running each section and an incident command center would open in the George Family Education Center. A family service center would open for reunification of loved ones, a finance arm would activate to handle fiscal affairs, more supplies would need to be purchased and brought in.

“In a busy ER, we can have six to 10 patients, but any more than that is a different process,” Trulson stated. 

The first four patients arrived at the hospital by car, before any ambulances. He noted this is typically how situations occur in reality because people are concerned with simply getting them to the emergency room. “So we checked them around back to our decontamination area,” he said. 

There were three to four multiple trauma patients in the group, though Trulson remarked that every type of injury was something Crossing Rivers could treat in house. Yet, to ensure a challenging surge test, the training included simulating the “transfer” of some patients to Vernon Memorial Hospital in Viroqua to make room for the influx of more.

“We actually staged some volunteers there ahead of time, and they responded how they would in actuality,” he noted. “We called (Vernon Memorial), gave them the patient details and they said if they could accept them. It’s all about being able to try out those procedures.”

While the region has been fortunate enough not to have had any major chemical releases in recent years, Trulson said Crossing Rivers recognizes that a great amount of hazardous materials does move through Prairie du Chien on rail and via semi truck. That precipitates classroom hours and practice time in the form of a first receivers course for hospital staff. 

“They need to recognize chemical exposure, practice how to suit up, decontaminate and care for the patient,” Trulson described. 

The hospital’s role in the exercise Thursday went well overall, in his opinion. He said Crossing Rivers wants to do more training on incident command through all shifts of its employees. 

“Communication is always an issue,” he mentioned. “Especially from the hospital down to the emergency scent, [having troubles] is not uncommon.”

Trulson added that Crossing Rivers would like to simulate another exercise involving public information officer functions and public health pre-planning about coordinating public response in the event of a disaster. He said such an activity might incorporate a running a press conference, assisting families and wrapping up beyond the last patient. 

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