September 12, 2003

Disaster Alert … in Terror Drill

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Local police, firefighters, EMTs and other emergency service personnel will have their skills tested tomorrow morning during an annual mock disaster drill.

Held in the Cornell Livestock Pavilion, the drill will simulate a domestic terrorist attack, according to Brad Harzoff ’93, the main organizer and paramedic supervisor for Bangs Ambulance. Approximately 250 people will be involved, including 150 volunteers and 100 emergency staff members. Some of the emergency staff workers will also participate in a simultaneous drill at Cayuga Medical Center.

The drill organizers said they chose to hold the scenario at the Cornell campus because it is a common place for large gatherings of people and also to focus on terrorism because of its increased possibility after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The organizers will not reveal the exact situation to keep it as authentic as possible. However, Harzoff said that the participants would be dealing with a chemical or bioterrorism attack that would be possible using materials available at Cornell.

Emergency personnel hope that they can test their readiness and improve their response time and procedure in case of a real disaster.

“We will certainly gain the opportunity … to further enhance [our] plans, to identify any gaps that exist,” said Andy Garcia-Rivera, director of Cornell Environmental Health and Safety.

In particular, the exercise will test interagency communication as all of the emergency personnel attempt to work together to build a “unified command system.” Because of the bioterrorism simulation, dealing with decontamination of both victims and workers may pose a major problem, according to Harzoff.

“[It] definitely throws a monkey wrench in things when there’s 150 people who have to be decontaminated,” he said. “There will probably be some responders who run into the scene and become victims.”

Although personnel will not be administering medical treatment or transporting victims, they will have to “triage” patients, or separate them according to their symptoms. To replicate accurate medical conditions, volunteers will use a variety of props, according to Sara Whittle ’87, a Red Cross volunteer and volunteer coordinator for the event.

“[We’re] not going to be using [fake] blood — more like Campbell’s Chunky Soup,” she said.

The Cornell University Police Department will also have to deal with perimeter control, with pressure coming both from outside onlookers and from volunteers pretending to be concerned family members. Other police responsibilities will include traffic control, incident command, evacuation and crime scene evaluation. Although the police have never participated in a similar real-time simulation, they believe that this drill will prove useful.

“We hope to learn from this where we might be deficient in our procedures and where we might be doing this right,” said Sergeant Lin Hurd.

Although Gannett: Cornell University Health Services will not be directly participating in the simulation due to staffing issues, they will be sending observers to evaluate the situation and the facility’s possible role in it. In a real disaster, Gannett would not only provide medical help but psychiatric services for those affected, according to Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations at Gannett.

“We know a big part of our role in a lot of situations we can [foresee] will be counseling,” she said.

This simulation is the third emergency exercise in three years in Ithaca and the second one conducted in “real time.” Previous scenarios included a high-rise fire in a local complex for the elderly and a “tabletop” discussion about the possibility of a major chemical spill at an Ithaca College football game.

The coordinators began planning these scenarios after 50 to 60 local emergency personnel attended Federal Emergency Management Agency training about three years ago. After completing the Ithaca-specific disaster training, they formed the Tompkins County Emergency Management Group and then took another FEMA class on designing large-scale scenarios.

These types of simulations are important not only to test emergency agencies but to build public confidence, according to Prof. Clifford Scherer, communications.

“The important message is letting the community know that there are people that are working to be prepared for any possible disaster that might happen,” he said.

In a real emergency, public communication must be honest and direct, Scherer added.

“Saying ‘I don’t know’ can bring about greater confidence than giving an answer and you’re wrong,” he said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher