Agencies tackle simulated tornado for emergency preparedness

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 14, 2013 

Army and EMS ambulances rushed to help victims after a tornado cut through Columbus State University and Columbus Technical College, leaving nearly 100 people wounded or dead.

That was the simulated scenario tackled during the 2013 Mass Casualty Exercise, an event that helped prepare about a dozen Alabama and Georgia organizations to work together during horrific disasters in high population areas.

For about four hours, representatives from Columbus Fire and EMS, the U.S. Army Ground Ambulance Company, Lee and Russell County EMAs and major hospitals in Columbus and Phenix City worked quickly to streamline the information emerging from public officials.

Fake tweets were written and a hastened press release was written in anticipation of a mock news conference, where people posing as reporters waited to pepper officials with questions.

Simultaneously, rescue workers were organizing relief efforts, spreading disaster victims evenly amongst area hospitals.

Fire Marshal Ricky Shores, who acted in his role as public information officer for the simulation, dodged and darted between people in the Public Safety Center's Emergency Operations Center Thursday morning, helping those organizing the fake release to prioritize what information should be released to the public. He said the exercise helps agencies who normally don't work together to implement a solid plan in the case of a real event.

"Whenever there's an emergency, everyone will be gathered (in the Emergency Operations Center)," Shores said. "All the information that's released has to come through one source, which will probably be me. That's to cut down on confusion."

The story officials would later release to reporter impersonators went like this:

"The way we have this tornado mapped out, it started near Manchester Expressway and River Road, cut through Columbus Tech, and then continued up Manchester Expressway through CSU," Shores said. "We've got 54 patients from Columbus Tech and 41 from CSU."

Those victims, played by volunteer nursing students, would then be categorized based on the severity of their wounds, a process called triage. Green means less serious injuries — a broken arm or leg, which could be given attention after more heavily injured victims. Then comes yellow, for severe injuries, and red for critical.

An extremely injured patient might be given the triage status of black, a declaration that survival is at best unlikely, at worst impossible.

"When you're categorized as black, we don't worry about you immediately," Shores said. "You're either dead or soon will be, and we have to take care of the reds and yellows."

One major challenge the exercise dealt with: communication. In a situation where phone lines might be down and entire parts of the city without electricity, workers rely on handheld, battery powered radios to organize. Shores compared the struggle to his experience working with a Columbus Fire and EMS relief team that was sent to New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

"In Katrina, it was the same way," Shores said. "All you had was the radios, and you could only communicate over short distances. Communication's always a hurdle — getting everyone on the same page."

And being on that same page is important, especially if team leaders want to prevent organizations from duplicating relief work, or worse, hindering it.

Learning how to overcome those statistical obstacles gives emergency workers a guideline to work with, Shores said — and goes along with public safety's effort to mitigate harm before disaster strikes.

"It will better prepare us to work with outside agencies we wouldn't have normal contact with," Shores said. "It's a good exercise for everyone to go through."

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