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From July 26 to 28, Northwestern University hosted its second hazardous-materials-response drills for community and University response teams. The Evanston Police Department had a participant role in the drill. Police Commander Joseph Dugan said “it was good practice for us as far as practicing teamwork/communication and getting experience working in an Incident Command System environment. …”
Michael B. Blayney, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Office for Research Safety (ORS) at Northwestern said his staff worked to create events that would test these goals but not reveal too much in advance. Each of the three days featured a different “cause and “effect,” he said. The department provides the scientific knowledge to each event based on real-world experience.
The “victims” and the “witnesses” were volunteers from the EFD Fire Explorers Program, EFD Citizens Fire Academy, NU and EFD Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
The local “receiving” hospitals were also involved to simulate patient transport. The mannequins that were used were made by the Laerdal Company. Its training “manikins” are patient simulators and incorporate the latest in computer hardware technology. They breathe, moan and groan. Some “manikins” even spurt blood from a limb that had been severed.
Team members never really know how a scenario will unfold until they start the drill, Dr. Blayney said. After each drill an incident “hot wash” takes place, which is an immediate “after-action” discussion and evaluation of an agency’s (or multiple agencies) performance following a training session.
Each drill presents some combination of hazards, and Dr. Blayney said that is a key part of an emergency. The first responders must quickly determine what materials may be present and what hazards are present. Fire, for example is an obvious issue but others, like chemicals may require more investigation. There are always physical hazards and during July, high temperatures are a major risk in any response.
Planning the Drills
After Dr. Blayney arrived at Northwestern in 2012, he said he worked to “modernize the office by developing the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities for internal emergency response.” By his third day on the job, he was working with the Evanston Fire Department, and they have been working together ever since. Dr. Blayney said,” We have an outstanding fire department in Evanston and in our neighboring communities.”
Deputy Fire Chief Brian Scott said the planning sessions, which began in January, were led by Dr. Blayney and the Northwestern Police. The planning schedule cycle goes from monthly to bi-weekly, to weekly to daily just before the training week. The goals for each year are discussed with the Evanston Fire Department (EFD) and the NU police. Dr. Blayney said the Evanston Fire Department this year wanted to test its multi-patient plan. The NU Police Department wanted to be sure its sergeants had further experience in working with the EFD during the first stages of an emergency “scene.”
Collaboration Is Key
Fire departments from Skokie, Wilmette, Glencoe, and Niles sent representatives to participate in the drills, Dr. Blayney said. The Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) Division Three has a Hazardous Materials Response Team made up of personnel from across the North Shore fire departments. The alarm system itself was not formally used by simulated, Deputy Chief Scott said.
“This year the Chicago Office of the FBI was involved along with some remarkable instructors from NIPSTA [Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Academy],” Dr. Blayney said. NIPSTA has a cooperative approach to emergency preparedness and response with cross training and communication among first responders at the local, state, and national level. Homeland Security was involved by providing a communication vehicle and dispatchers, said Deputy Chief Scott.
Deputy Chief Scott said about 225 people were involved in the drills over the three-day period. He added, “Collaboration was simply outstanding from all agencies involved. Through the outstanding collaboration and support of NU and ORS, we once again met our primary objective to conduct highly effective and realistic drills. He continued, “It is only through these types of ‘hands-on’ exercises that focus on the best practices and disciplined resource allocation that we can properly prepare to save lives in the highly complex and dangerous environments that the EFD faces all too often.”
The assessment of how the drills are carried out each day is vitally important for planning for next year’s drill, Dr. Blayney said. The Fire Service will look at how quickly they responded, how well they communicated and how easily they added other units as they arrived. This would also be true for the police, he said. For ORS, the discussion would determine how quickly information was identified, the precautions taken, the questions asked and how easily and quickly changes were made in the response based on new information. The debriefing will continue for several weeks and this information will be used to develop future drills and improve the response capabilities sooner, rather than later, said Dr. Blayney. He added that ORS has hundreds of photographs and hours of video to use for future training events.
Dr. Blayney said, “Without overstating it, this year was a great experience and led to valuable outcomes that made the team all better when it matters most – a real emergency.”