A training for the local fire departments and the Grande Ronde Hospital put workers to the test Thursday morning with a simulated chemical spill and bus load of victims.
The event, staged on Oregon Highway 82 and Booth Lane, included a group of 13 volunteers strategically situated inside and outside of the bus. Putting their acting skills to the test, the volunteers each had an assignment for the day, from not being able to breathe properly to playing dead.
The call over the scanner setting the scene for the drill went through dispatch just after 9 a.m., officially beginning the training. La Grande Fire, La Grande Rural Fire, Elgin, Union and Imbler fire departments responded to the scene.
One thing the organizers of the event didn’t, and couldn’t account for, was the real-life motor vehicle accident on Interstate 84, which was reported not too long after the training began. It took half of the fire department responders away from the training.
The amount of people responding to the real accident made the drill more realistic — and more of a challenge. The transfer of command made an impact in the training and some communication was lost.
“We learned a lot,” said La Grande Fire Department Capt. Tyson Botts, who co-organized the event, adding there were two new people in the fire departments, who were able to triage patients. Something they’ve never done before.
“The chemical we chose to use was not in our emergency response guidebook, so they were using a generic emergency response,” Botts said. “They had to stay back and identify the product.”
The delay in identifying the chemical caused a lag in response time to victims, a common scenario during HAZMAT emergencies.
“You want to set up, want to be safe and identify the product and work toward getting the patients off from there,” Botts said.
Different zones were set up for each scene, Botts said, including a “hot zone,” which featured chemically-contaminated patients. The responders had to transport patients from the “hot zone” to a “warm zone” to be decontaminated. The training also featured a “cold zone” where victims could be treated, placed in an ambulance and transported to a hospital to see a decontamination team.
Jeffery Walker, 16, who attends Imbler High School, played one of the victims Thursday.
“My assignment was to lay on the bus floor,” Walker said after the training. “I had a broken leg and a broken arm. I was responsive, but couldn’t walk and I was nauseated.”
This was the first time he volunteered for a training like this, he said. He said he is interested in pursuing a career in the medical field and Thursday’s event was something he enjoyed being a part of.
“I think it was pretty cool and something different to try,” Walker said. “It was a different experience to see how they go through the process.”
April Brock, GRH emergency room manager, was there with Dawn Chamberlain, who also helped organize the training, to facilitate the volunteers at the hospital were ready to take in the patients, like Walker, from the scene.
Hospital staff focused on three main points: activation of internal command structure, activate the decontamination team and utilizing the CHEMPACK location, which are containers of nerve agent antidotes placed in secure locations at local levels around the country, to allow rapid response to a chemical incident, Brock said.
Separately from the first responders, hospital staff had to identify the type of decontamination required for the type of chemical that had been spilled, she said.
Brock said this training went well.
“The things that go well make you feel like, ‘You got this,’” she said. “And you learn with the failure points. You wouldn’t learn otherwise.”
Last year’s training focused on the Cascadia Earthquake, a massive earthquake predicted to shake the region. That drill showed where the gaps were in the training last year. Organizers identified how to solve those issues for Thursday’s simulation.
She said at Thursday’s training they were able to put those solutions into action and see how they panned out.
“It worked a lot better,” Brock said. “This year, we found new gaps. Communication is always an issue, and we try to figure out how to do that better.”
Brock said despite the communication issues, the training remains a valuable tool and something that isn’t possible without the help of the volunteers.
“There’s high school and middle school students, a couple of people from the hospital (volunteering as patients),” Brock said. “We are better prepared when people are willing to be a part of this. The nurses and providers are so passionate about improving the quality of care that they’re coming in when they don’t have to.”
The more people who work in these trainings, the more seamless it’ll be if the real thing occurred, Brock said.
“The best time to find your holes is not during an actual situation,” she said.
The real stars for Brock’s portion of the training were the Environmental Services Staff who make up the decontamination team, she said. That team has been through a lot of training and learning to get on par with what’s required of them.
“They were the shining stars, they had the least amount of gaps and amount of problems (Thursday),” she said. “They went really smooth.”
For Botts, he wants to work on getting the patients in and out quicker.