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Agencies plan emergency response drill

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| August 11, 2009 12:00 AM

The heavy snows of 1996 collapsed the roofs of dozens of local businesses and homes, including the VFW Hall only hours after it had been crowded with people.

Though catastrophe was avoided then, hospital officials and related agencies want to know – could Libby handle such an emergency?

The most fatalities St. John’s Lutheran Hospital has ever dealt with from one incident was five, so what if 20 people died in a roof collapse and another 10 were trapped and injured?

Later this month, St. John’s Lutheran Hospital will partner with local agencies to stage an emergency drill enacting just that scenario. It will give agencies the opportunity to communicate with each other and learn what problems come up in such an emergency.

“I’m really happy to see people sitting at the same table, face-to-face,” said Amy Smart, public health emergency preparedness coordinator. “When something really goes down is not the time to meet each other. It’s nice to already have a working relationship in play.”

Speech and drama students from Libby High School will play the victims of a roof collapse at the hospital conference center. They will have laminated cards listing their condition, but because the exercise is testing the hospital’s mass fatality plan, the majority will be “deceased.”

A pager message will go out at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29 requesting ambulance and firefighters to respond to the scene. Before and after each radio message, the caller will announce that it is only a drill.

“We’re going to do our best so that people will be aware that it’s an exercise,” Smart said.

The scene will also have signs that say, “Exercise in progress.”

Though participating agencies are all aware of the drill and some specifics of the scenario, unexpected obstacles will undoubtedly come up.

“It (the drill) is surprisingly still very effective,” Smart said. “It’s surprising the little things you run into, like in some exercises they’ve done, the hardest thing was to get a gurney around a certain corner.”

Tony Rebo, St. John’s facility manager and safety security officer, will also throw the agencies a few curveballs. Some victims will be hidden, and emergency responders will have to find a way to get a list of people who were in the building at the time of the roof collapse.

Even with a list, Rebo can foresee an onlooker asking, “Where’s my brother, Dave?” when maybe “Dave” called in sick and was not actually in the building at the time of the collapse.

The sheriff’s office will be on hand to block traffic, firefighters will practice using their equipment to lift up beams and debris, and ambulance crews will place victims on backboards and transport them to the hospital.

David Thompson Search and Rescue will use thermal cameras and a trained dog to locate missing victims in hard-to-see areas created by a fog machine.

The fire department will also practice decontaminating victims – hosing down the student volunteers – for a scenario in which some were sprayed with diesel from a furnace. The coroner’s office will manage the human remains and belongings and try to get ahold of their families in a timely manner.

The state requires the hospital to perform an external drill once every two years if a real-life emergency doesn’t occur within that time.

“It’s a learning thing to get better at what we do,” Rebo said.