September 15, 2003

Terrorist Attack? Relax, Just a Test.

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Saturday, 9:05 a.m.: A 911 call reports multiple people vomiting and having respiratory difficulties outside of the Cornell Livestock Pavilion.

There has been a chemical terrorist attack in the Pavilion. The terrorist has released phosgene gas, a poison gas used in World War I that forms hydrochloric acid in the lungs and can cause death within thirty minutes. Unfortunately, the emergency responders know none of this information yet.

Thankfully, this crisis was only a drill.

Saturday morning, about 100 local emergency staff and 50 volunteer “patients” played out this scenario in the Cornell Livestock Pavilion. Other staff and volunteers were also at Cayuga Medical Center, playing the same scenario out there.

The organizers, the Tompkins County Emergency Management Group, designed the simulation to test the skills of several local emergency response agencies. Participating emergency groups included the Cornell University Police Department, Ithaca Police Department, Ithaca Fire Department (IFD), Bangs Ambulance, Cornell Environmental Health and Safety and Cayuga Medical Center.

Although the scenario was supposed to begin at five after nine, two “real deal” emergency calls delayed the drill by fifteen minutes, in addition to pulling away emergency staff.

Meanwhile, the volunteer “patients” began their part. Some set up outside the police line as worried family members, while others later joined as members of the media. Several volunteers staggered out into the Pavilion’s parking lot, throwing cans of Campbell’s Bean and Ham soup in front of them and imitating gagging noises.

Some particularly got into character as chemically poisoned people, yelling confused statements and shouting for help. “I don’t wanna die,” volunteer Frank Palmer yelled. Later, he said, “Call the fire department. Wait, they’re already here.”

However, at this point, the police could not help the patients, since they had not yet identified the poisonous substance. If the agent was a biological or chemical weapon that could spread by air or touch, the responders would become infected while helping people.

Because of this potential problem, the police and fire department set up a blockade on both sides of Judd Falls Road. Over a loudspeaker, they told the victims wandering around in the road, “Stay exactly where you are. Do not come any closer. If you keep heading in this direction, we will not be able to help you.”

By 10:00 a.m., the fire department had set up a decontamination unit on Wing Road at the opposite side of the Pavilion. As it rained sporadically, they ran a powerful shower from one of the fire ladders, spraying victims with cold water. Firefighters in contamination gear, including oxygen tanks, helped victims into and out of the showers as others still staggered over from Judd Falls Road.

“This water is the right thing to do,” confirmed Dr. Steven Hughes, an observer and physician at Gannett: Cornell University Medical Services.

Once patients underwent decontamination, firefighters and emergency medical workers wrapped them in blankets and brought them over to the Emergency Medical Services (EMS). The EMS workers then “triaged” patients, separating them into groups for immediate or delayed treatment, and loaded them into ambulances. The ambulances transported the patients about a block and then dropped them off, where the volunteers would either be finished or recycled as new “patients.”

Although many of the patients were decontaminated and treated, at 11 a.m., several remained on Judd Falls Road and inside the Pavilion, long past the point of rescue.

“People are going to die,” said Frank Cantone, a controller and exercise design team member, in response to the inability of the staff to rescue all of the victims. “It’s a sad fact of life.”

Even though it would have been too late to rescue the patients inside, around 11:30 a.m., a decontamination team entered the Livestock Pavilion in full HazMat (hazardous material) suits. After testing the air, they entered and removed patients from the area.

Despite various problems, organizers, emergency staff and volunteers all found the drill a worthwhile experience. During the course of the scenario, they discovered the biggest problems came from lack of staff and inter-agency communication.

“[We learned that] there never seems to be enough manpower where you need them. That seems to be a common problem,” said Tom Raponi, an IFD firefighter.

Procedures for the EMS went somewhat more smoothly, although they had some problems with contaminated patients wandering outside of set perimeters.

“It was a great learning experience,” said Brian Gacioch ’04, an AEMT-CC (critical care technician) for Bangs Ambulance. “It’s good to get some practice up at Cornell, since it’s such a large part of the community we cover.”

In addition to medical, fire and police staff, the drill also tested the skills of local public information officers. With mock reporters on the scene, the officers had to circulate accurate, timely information about the disaster to the public and press.

“I got a real taste for what it would be like to be a public information officer in a large event,” said Julie Holcomb, Ithaca city clerk and public information evaluator. “I learned … how important it is to establish media relations in a non-crisis situation.”

Overall, the organizers declared the drill a success, even if some procedures took longer than expected.

“Given the very few number of people we had as responders … they did an excellent job of doing what they had to do,” Cantone said.

Although they were only testing their acting skills, most of the volunteers seemed to enjoy the drill.

Wen Lin ’05 volunteered because he is taking an EMT course and wanted to see how a real incident would unfold.

Describing what he learned in the course of playing a bystander, he said, “If it’s a real incident, stay calm, stay away from the victims at a safe distance.”

Other volunteer patients already had background in the area of emergency response, like Palmer, a Dryden fire and ambulance volunteer who teaches classes in Community Emergency Response.

“Education without application is somewhat stale,” he said. He continued, “We need more responders, we need more volunteers, trained volunteers. That’s where your value is in the community.”

Archived article by Shannon Brescher