Disaster Strikes With Able And Willing Victims On Hand

May 22, 1991|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — It had been about an hour since a potentially deadly mixture of ammonia, sodium hypochlorite and Dynasurf cleaning fluid spilled out overthe floor of a delivery area at Carroll County Elementary School, and John McDonald was getting a little impatient.

A while later, impatience turned to unconsciousness and, finally, cardiac arrest.

Just before 4 p.m. at Carroll County General Hospital, McDonald "died."

The 24-year-old Hampstead resident was one of five county residents who volunteered to be "victims" of a simulated hazardous material spill Sunday to test the skills of county emergency services.

The site of the mock disaster drill was the Carroll County Maintenance Center on Meadow Branch Road, which was transformed into the imaginary elementary school containing 400 imaginary students.

Volunteer firefighters from Manchester, Taneytown and New Windsor responded tothe 1:20 p.m. call that hazardous materials had spilled in a delivery area at the school, and that at least five people were injured.

The spill was "discovered" by the principal of the school, Mr. Principal, who was portrayed by Local Emergency Planning Committee member Gary Wheeler, who coordinated the event.

The firefighters, led by Deputy Chief Steve Miller of Manchester Volunteer Fire Company, ran into problems at the scene right away.

The first two firefighters to go in and check out the spill took more than 20 minutes to get there. Once they were in, they had no way to communicate with their fellow firefighters who were outside the contaminated area.

"That was our first mistake," said Miller. "We should never have let them go in there without setting up some kind of communication first."

More problems followed.

Because it was a drill, only about half of the members of the fire companies and paramedics showed up on Sunday. The firefighters that were there had to keep stopping to avoid heat exhaustion and there was no one available to take their places.

"If this had been a real emergency, the incident commander would have kept calling for more units," said Charles Barnhart, county emergency services coordinator.

The ambulance crew members were upset because they felt the priority during the drill was placed on identifying the chemicals and containing the contamination, and not on the injured patients.

"Our first priority was safety," said Barnhart. "The first thing we have to be concerned about is protecting ourselves. We're notgoing to do anybody any good if we all get contaminated, too."

The emergency services evaluators who observed the drill said they wereconcerned about how long it took to get the victims out of the hazardous material.

The first victim didn't come out until 50 minutes after the emergency call went out.

The final victim to come out, played by McDonald, was the most seriously injured. He wasn't brought out by the firefighters until almost 1 1/2 hours after the first call.

"You guys went past the unconscious driver and carried the people out behind him who were not as seriously hurt," said Barnhart. "He was laying back there and wrote in sawdust 'Dead Driver,' thinking somebody has got to look."

Barnhart and the evaluators suggested thecompanies use a triage method of prioritizing patients in future emergencies.

Bruce Waltz, one of the drill evaluators, said that for the most part, all of the companies had good communication with each other and worked together well.

"Most disaster drills are a disaster because we don't get together and plan ahead of time," said Waltz."This can be a good learning experience so we know what not to do this time."

Sunday's drill was the first full-scale disaster drill in the county in the past 10 years, Barnhart said.

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