OSWEGO, NY – Dozens of “sickened” young people descended on Oswego Hospital Thursday. It was all part of a large drill and the teens’ participation helped train those who’d respond to such an event if this had been an actual emergency.
The drill focused primarily on the hospital’s ability to effectively respond to incidents that would involve large numbers of chemically contaminated patients who self-report to the facility.
An actual event may involve either an intentional or unintentional release of a chemical substance in the community that results in multiple individuals being exposed.
This year’s scenario involved several students that were attending a sporting event at a nearby town park. During the event, an explosion occurs within a storage shed located directly adjacent to where the students were seated, explained Marion Ciciarelli, public relations manager for the hospital.
Although no apparent physical injuries are noted, several of the teens begin to experience symptoms including difficulty breathing and swallowing, stinging and tearing of the eyes, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, weakness and headache among others.
The cause of the explosion isn’t immediately known. It involved Malathion, a highly toxic organophosphate pesticide that had been packed into the bomb that exploded in the shed.
All of the infected are weak but able to walk. Rather than wait for emergency services to respond to the scene, the frightened, anxious and sickened individuals decide to immediately report directly to the hospital, according to drill coordinator Paul Vandish, chief Quality/Risk/Compliance Officer at Oswego Hospital.
The hospital responded by activating its trained Decon Team dressed in appropriate personnel protective suits, setting up the site with a portable decontamination shelter and effectively taking the “victims” through the decontamination process, he explained.
About 45 students from BOCES’ New Vision class portrayed the injured.
Medical staff quickly erected two temporary structures; one a warm area to house the victims and the other a large shower unit.
If someone were to walk into the lobby (or Emergency Department) complaining of being exposed to unknown chemicals, “We’d lock down the place immediately,” Vandish told Oswego County Today. “It takes us about 20 minutes to set up the portable decontamination shelter. That’s why we do these drills – we want to get better, faster. The training helps us understand what needs to be done in certain situations.”
Two by two the victims were taken through the shower. After they disrobed and their belongings sealed in plastic bags, they were sprayed with water to wash away the contaminant.
All the students were given different parts to play. Some of them had pets with them, one had an infant and one even tried to run away.
There are still things that have to be worked on; that’s the reason for holding such drills, to be able to know what the strengths and weakness are, Vandish said.
The organizers tried to make it as realistic as possible for the hospital staff, he said.
An “After Action Report and Improvement Plan” with recommendations will be prepared for future training, equipment and response procedure, Vandish noted.
“There are a lot of businesses and industries that use a host of chemicals,” Vandish said. “The contamination could be unintentional or intentional. We have to train for all types of emergencies. We have to be well-trained, because you never know when something might happen.”
“It was very realistic,” said Nicole McMahon of the Hannibal Central School District. “Everyone treated it as if it were the real thing. It was actually nerve racking going through the decontamination process.”
Alysa Halsey of the Pulaski School District agreed.
“I thought the drill went pretty good. It was fun, but a little cold,” she said. “It’s good that they do these practices just in case something does ever happen.”
Thursday’s drill was observed and evaluated by representatives from the NYS Department of Health, the Oswego County Fire Coordinator’s Office, and the Oswego County Emergency Management Office.
In an effort to build on an existing relationship with the county’s Health Department and to facilitate the ability to work collaboratively during an emergency such as this, Vandish added, the drill also included members of the Oswego County Health Department participating as Decon Team members.
“It is well documented that a large percentage of victims that are involved in a chemical incident may self-report to hospitals. Being able to provide essential decontamination prior to their entry into the hospital is a must for continued hospital operations,” Vandish told Oswego County Today prior to the start of the drill.
These types of exercise require extensive pre-planning and coordination, he added.
The time spent up front with plan design and actual testing of the plan makes the hospital that much more efficient and effective should a real event occur requiring the response of the Decon Team,” he pointed out.
“It is a learning opportunity for the hospital staff to examine the unique aspects of responding to potential intentional and non-intentional chemical incidents and top make improvements to our plan as needed,” Vandish said. “The more you practice, the better you get at something.”
Each year new people join the Decon Team, Vandish pointed out.
The team has about 43 members; this year, 14 are new members.
“Even though you’ve seen the same thing every year, more or less, you’ve got 14 new people who’ve never done this before. So we want to make sure they know what to do and what to expect. We keep practicing because one day, we might have to do this for real,” he said.