Dispatch called out a building collapse in three locations across Union County at 9:10 a.m. Thursday. Area responders traveled to Booth Lane in La Grande, Union High School and Stella Mayfield School in Elgin for the Cascadia Rising training concerning a hypothetical real-life situation.
It was all a drill, but the volunteers who appeared as victims were expected to make this as real as possible.
“You’re going to be paralyzed,” said La Grande Fire Department Capt. Tyson Botts to one of the 18 victims Thursday morning before they went to their assigned locations.
“You’re going to be dead,” he said pointing to another volunteer.
Cascadia Rising training has been occurring this week throughout the Northwest region with the focus on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a convergent plate boundary stretching from Vancouver Island to Northern California.
According to a press release from the emergency services department, subduction zone earthquakes are said to be among the most powerful, and can exceed a 9.0 magnitude. While Union County is a far cry from the center of the subduction zone in this drill, it is possible that extreme shaking could occur — and in this fictional situation, it caused structures to fall and people to get hurt.
Botts, along with J.B. Brock, Union County Emergency Services director, and April Brock, Grande Ronde Hospital emergency room nurse manager, have been working on creating this mass casualty training for about six months, April said. The effort takes a lot of coordination with all the different entities.
Emergency responders from the La Grande Rural Fire District, Imbler and Cove quick response teams, Elgin and Union volunteer ambulance services, LGFD, GRH, Life Flight, Center for Human Development, the American Red Cross, Oregon Department of Forestry and the county emergency services department came together for the large-scale event to test their skills and figure out what the departments’ strengths and weaknesses are.
“The more realistic, the better off it’ll be for these guys,” Brock said to the group of volunteers who were assigned injuries. “You guys make this drill happen. If you ever wanted to be an actor, then let it shine.”
The region-wide drill, the largest ever conducted in the Pacific Northwest, brought together roughly 20,000 people from federal, state and local levels in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, along with tribal governments and multiple branches of the military.
Eleven patients of varying injuries were located at Booth Lane. From amputees to diesel burns to a woman going into labor, the emergency responders didn’t know what to expect when they drove up to the scene.
“The patients are tagged automatically in green, yellow, red or black,” said Public Information Officer for LGFD Robert Tibbetts, indicating the immediacy of assistance required.
Those patients, originally assigned by Botts, were meant to challenge the responders. Some of those patients could walk around. Others tried to force their way onto an ambulance ahead of others, while some needed more medical attention.
“They need to be concerned about the patients graduating from the next level,” said Tibbetts of a patient who might be stable at one point but deteriorates while waiting for transport.
LGFD and the LGRFD responded to that location. Among the responders were James Petty and Dusty Alam from LGFD.
“This training let’s you know what you need to work on,” Petty said.
Petty and Alam transported two patients in La Grande to the hospital, where patients from the other two locations were also headed. One of the patients, Nojah Chamberlain, 16, had a broken leg and was covered in diesel fuel that had spilled at the scene.
Petty and Alam left Booth Lane with one of the last groups of patients and headed toward the hospital. For April and the medical staff at the hospital, their objective was to focus on the number of patients admitted and the small number of rooms available to them.
“The main objective was to be overwhelmed with patients,” April said at the hospital, while surrounded by medical staff, emergency responders and the patients just brought in.
April said in a typical emergency situation, the emergency responders tell the nurses accepting the patients at the hospital a lot of information. In a mass casualty situation, it limits the reporting process.
“It’s uncomfortable for us,” April said. “We’re used to knowing more.”
The hospital has a limited number of rooms and more patients than they can house. The staff had to divvy up the patients based on their injuries.
Brock said this training was the biggest one the county has ever had.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” he said.
In his office, the different represented agencies had public information officers housed in one room.
“From the perspective of emergency management, you’re the show for me,” Brock said to the room full of employees from the county, hospital, CHD, Red Cross and ODF.
“We want to coordinate the message and provide timely information as much as we can. We want to make sure what’s coming out of the room is accurate. This is a drill. This is a great time to make a mistake.”
After the training was finished, Brock said he believes the drill went well overall.
“There were multiple people with different objectives,” he said. “It’s really a dance. They all wanted to accomplish a certain objective in the drill. Then we built a scenario around it.”
The training forced the emergency responders to depend on themselves and those in the county for help — because in a situation like an earthquake, the resources normally provided by outside entities wouldn’t necessarily be available.
“The drill is designed to guide our training and we certainly did well on some things, and found some things we needed to work on,” Brock said.