Practicing for disaster

Practicing for disaster

Over 500 first responders participate in annual mass casualty incident training organized by the St. Charles County Ambulance District

By Brett Auten

Practice makes perfect, and for over 500 first responders in St. Charles County, that was the mantra for the month of May.

Every year the St. Charles County Ambulance District (SCCAD) organizes and puts on a scenario that provides a backdrop for a mass casualty incident training for paramedics and firefighters in the county. This year, with support from Fire Protection Districts throughout the county, the combination MCI/hazardous material (aka hazmat) training took place on the grounds of St. Charles Community College’s School of Nursing and Allied Health in O’Fallon. 

SCCAD Training Officer Rick Lane, who heads the MCI exercise each year, helped stage a significant chlorine release. Most think of chlorine as nothing more than stinging your eyes after a day at the pool, and while reactions to highly-diluted chlorine are mild and subside within hours, higher concentrations of chlorine exposure can be harmful, even fatal. Though it was planned well ahead of time, the selection of chlorine as the chemical agent involved became quite timely following the April 7 chemical attack in Douma, Syria. Chlorine and nerve agent sarin are believed to have been used in the attack that left more than 40 dead.  Exposure to concentrated levels of chlorine gas can lead to fluid build-up in the lungs, a condition known as pulmonary edema. Symptoms of exposure include wheezing, labored breathing, sore throat, and chest tightness, among others.

First responders were forced to put their clinical and critical thinking skills to the test while removing victims from the unsafe environment, decontaminating them and relocating those impacted to safe locations.  In addition to ambulances and fire trucks, non-traditional response apparatus such as utility terrain vehicles were utilized.

Kyle Gaines, Director of Community Relations for SCCAD, said this year’s hazmat component, in which the chlorine exposure occurs at a festival-type situation, gives the trainees an opportunity to deal with an array of problems.

“You have victims who have symptoms related to exposure to the chlorine,” Gaines said. “Also, there is the panic and hysteria of victims who are hurt in a rush to get out of the area.”

For Lane, who is in his 39th year as a paramedic, coming up with scenarios year after year is a rewarding challenge. In year’s past, there have been scenarios involving an active shooter, a school bus accident, storm response and more.

“It’s a great challenge,” Lane said. “You always want to make next year better than the last. This year’s focus on hazmat is something we’ve wanted to incorporate for some time, as it gives us a lot of variables to test our teams’ ability to strategically manage the scenario.  For instance, we must pay close attention to environmental conditions – a shift in wind direction can rapidly change the scope of the situation,”

Jeremey Hollrah, Deputy Chief of Special Operations and a 14-year veteran, says that the yearly mass casualty incident training gives the firefighters, paramedics and others involved a different flavor when it comes to prepping for the worst.

“This year, the hazmat component adds a different layer,” Hollrah said. “There are several steps involved when dealing with this type of scenario. There is an aspect of stepping back and evaluating and recognizing what needs to be done to protect yourself. It is a situation where do not want to become a victim of your surroundings.”

The yearly training is also a prime opportunity for the varying first responders to learn together. 

“When you can get all of the resources together and all of the players involved, whether it is law enforcement or emergency dispatcher’s together, it makes it as real as we can,” Hollrah added. 

In the end, it is all about getting in the reps to make responding to an actual disaster not a harried situation.

“The training makes you a little more comfortable and trusting to the person next to you because practiced together,” Lane said. “We train hard today for the real thing tomorrow.”

CUTLINE: Photos courtesy St. Charles County Ambulance District