Communication issues, terrorist plots are highlight of disaster drill

Mass casualty drill shows strengths, weaknesses of responders

Hollywood would have been hard-pressed to create a better plot than the one cooked up for various emergency responders Saturday.

A van load of people suffered from all types of injuries as the result of an accident with a truck. The truck was loaded with barrels of chemicals, which turned out to be toxic. And, as crews worked on the victims in the accident, things got even more interesting.

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Above, Jenny Heofner and Rick Hall enter a "hot zone" in full Haz-Mat gear to assess the accident scene. A hot zone is one where hazardous materials have spilled or escaped. Right, Moffat County Sheriff Buddy Grinstead organized his decontamination team and their response to deal with the toxic materials loosened by an accident.

Law enforcement officials were forced to deal with the terrorists who had been driving the truck and the Moffat County Hazardous Materials (Haz-Mat) team eventually found a bomb.

It was all part of a the Moffat County's Mass Casualty Drill, a training exercise put together to test the response and organization of individual emergency responders and emergency response teams.

"Our goal was to practice our skills, which we accomplished, and to let things go wrong so we know what we need to address to handle these situations," said Moffat County Emergency Manager Clyde Anderson.

Participating departments included the Moffat County Sheriff's Department, Troop 4B of the Colorado State Patrol, Craig Police Department, Craig Fire/Rescue, Maybell Fire/Rescue, Craig/Rural Fire Protection District, Craig Ambulance, Maybell Ambulance, the Sheriff's Posse, Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse's Association, the Red Cross, Victim's Advocates and the Haz-Mat Team.

"These drills allow us to work together and identify problems. These exercises give us continuous improvement," said Chris Nichols, deputy chief of the Craig Fire/Rescue. "We had many agencies participate, and they all handled their functions, and handled them well."

At a review meeting held after the drill, the two areas cited as needing the most improvement were communications and command structure.

Several participants said that radio traffic was very heavy, adding to the confusion of the situation.

The lack of a clearly-defined chain of command on the scene, and defining who those commanders were, also led confusion, participants said.

The first communication issue was whether the van carrying six victims was "hot," a term used to refer to the presence of toxic chemicals. That caused some delay in the treatment of the victims, Sheriff Buddy Grinstead said.

"We need to define an incident command system," said Bill Johnston, Chief 3 for Craig Fire/Rescue. "These drills allow us to see what our shortcomings are, and work those issues into the next plan."

Ideally, incident command positions will be created, Johnston said.

"As different departments arrive, we tab someone, and say 'you're Operations for your department' and so on. The departments will report to Ops, and then Ops will report to Incident Command.

A change in the organizational structure will lower radio traffic, creating less confusion.

All attending the mock incident agreed that Incident Command structure should be part of the focus for the next drill.

"This was a good drill, a good exercise, and I think we should try to have two more before November," Grinstead said.

Charity Sjogren, member of the Leadership Team for the Emergency Response Team agreed, but said that the scale of the drill should be adjusted.

"I think we overwhelmed ourselves and made ourselves fail," Sjogren said. "We should start smaller, raise our proficiency and then build up to bigger problems."

Anderson said the county would like to have more drills, but the issues of cost and scheduling can create restraints.

"We'll take a look at holding these drills more frequently, and see what's reasonable," Anderson said. "We use an Incident Command system for our departments, but we need to have a more extensive system in place for us to be prepared for emergencies of this size. These drills will help us build that."

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