Disaster drill keeps hospitals on their toes

DOWNEY - A realistic disaster drill testing the responses of two major hospitals and local emergency services has been hailed a success by authorities.

The drill began Wednesday morning when a power plant at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center "exploded," injuring approximately 30 students who were touring the campus as part of a school field trip.

"It's not an unrealistic scenario," said Cheryl Guinn, an administrator of ancillary services at Rancho and acting public information officer. "We often times have groups that come here for tours, including dignitaries from other countries."

Rancho has an active power plant on its campus, in addition to two 500-gallon tanks of sulphuric acid, Guinn said.

The drill was done in conjunction with Downey Regional Medical Center and fire departments from Downey and surrounding cities.

While each hospital is required by their respective accreditation agencies to stage two disaster drills per year, it was the first time Rancho and Downey Regional had collaborated on such a project, officials said.

Stephen Cuthbertson, director of safetey and disaster planning at Downey Regional, organized the drill. At approximately 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, he began the drill by placing a phone call to Downey Fire Department Captain John Day, simulating a call to 911.

At 8:53 a.m., the first Downey fire engine arrived at the scene, followed by a Compton ambulance. Los Angeles County police were soon on the scene as well.

Firefighters feared the victims (portrayed by volunteers) may have been exposed to sulphuric acid and took a cautious approach.

"Is there anybody that can walk?" a firefighter shouted, as he stood about 25 feet away from the cluster of students.

"Help me, please help me!" was the response from the injured students, who writhed on the floor in pain.

By 9:05 a.m. fire agencies from Vernon, Santa Fe Springs and Montebello had arrived on the scene. They provided support to Downey Fire, the lead agency.

Firefighters quickly constructed a portable decontamination center. Victims who could walk were hosed down and taken to a triage center.

Rancho took possession of the least-injured victims while more severe patients were loaded into ambulances and transported to Downey Regional.

"We're a rehabilitation hospital, but we need to be able to treat all sorts of injuries," Guinn said. "We don't have an ER, but if someone has a heart attack or other emergency, they might walk in here and we need to be able to treat that person."

Victims who could not walk were placed on gurneys and physically carried through the decontamination process.

Adding to the drill's realism, five victims wandered into the Rancho's medical building to seek treatment. Doctors and staff there were not aware of the drill and were tested on their response.

"If someone really is contaminated with sulphuric acid or other hazardous material, we don't want them walking around campus and possibly infecting other people," Guinn said.

Four volunteers also played the part of journalists. At approximately 9:15 a.m., "reporters" made their way to Downey Regional and Rancho, hounding administrators with questions while snapping photographs.

Other volunteers played the part of family members, who were anxious for answers and attempted to roam the hospitals before being stopped by security.

Meanwhile, at Downey Regional, after learning of the explosion at Rancho, officials set-up their own decontamination center.

Nurses assessed their units for potential discharges to free up beds. Other workers ordered extra water and linen, while a supervisor checked Coca-Cola's wind sock for wind direction and a possible uphill draft.

The Cardiac Rehab Area was turned into the command post and Rob Fuller, the hospital's chief operating officer, was in charge. All previous appointments for the day were cancelled and employees were thrust into very specific roles: some workers stock inventory to ensure proper levels of food and medicine, while others kept careful track of how much money was being spent on the emergency.

"We need to have a very orderly procedure in case this is ever a real emergency," said Monica Lueke, director of education for Downey Regional. "We have just under 200 beds here, but some of those are occupied by current patients. If we have a major disaster and run out of beds, we need to have a contigency plan in place."

The drill ended by 11:30 a.m. and administrators from both hospitals said they were pleased with their staff's response. The volunteers, mostly students from the Downey Unified School District's ROP program, were treated to pizza.

Cuthbertson, Downey Regional's director of safety, made a special point of thanking participating fire agencies as well as Downey Link, Downey Dial-a-Ride and Americare Ambulance, which helped transport volunteers.

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Published: June 12, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 8