HARRISONBURG — Most civilians probably don’t realize what it takes to get a mass casualty incident under control.
And it made Ann Simmons hope she never has to go through it.
Simmons, who works at the health care center at James Madison University, volunteered to be an actor for a simulation drill at JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium.
During the three-part drill, participants responded as if there was a natural gas explosion in the club level on the second floor of the stadium.
“The drill showed the type and amount of chaos that a mass casualty can bring on,” she said following the drill. “And the officials had to make sure they were on the same wavelength and communicate efficiently between one another.”
The drill was focused on efficiently and safely evacuating people from the stadium, which holds 25,000 people.
It tested the ability of local, regional, private non-governmental and state partners to evacuate from the gas explosion in accordance with the Bridgeforth Stadium Fire Safety and Emergency Evacuation Plan.
The exercise involved 130 actors and nearly 400 participants, which included the UVA Health System, UVA Special Event and Medical Management, Sentara RMH, Augusta Health, JMU staff and the Harrisonburg fire and police department among others.
When the stadium holds a large event, there are around 100 responders at the stadium, including law enforcement, emergency medical transport and fire personnel, according to Harrisonburg Fire Department Administrative Officer Paul Helmuth.
Monday was the first time a mass casualty drill has been held at the campus, but Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English said he would like to see mass incident drills occur more often.
“I know it takes a lot of planning, but no city is immune to something like this happening,” he said. “The more you do activities, the more prepared you are.”
He said mass incidents can make everyone behave chaotically and part of the police department’s job is to keep everyone calm while evacuating the location in need.
The department also helps direct the traffic in the surrounding area.
“There is always room for improvement and these exercises help us see what the breakdowns are and what needs to be changed,” English said.
During the first part of the drill where the simulated gas explosion took place, all victims — some with faux injuries ranging from blown eardrums, glass in their chest and broken bones — were evacuated outside by event staff.
From there, emergency medical technicians were present to evaluate every victim and attach a green, yellow or red band on them based on the extent of their injury.
Helmuth said around five victims were transported to Sentara RMH Emergency Department, where staff played along in the exercise and tended to the patient’s wounds.
“I never saw emergency personnel helping,” Simmons said. “People who wouldn’t normally be able to walk in that situation were having to walk out of the space and down the stairs or stand on the escalator.”
She said there needs to be a better way to get them safely out of danger.
Edna Reid, a cyber intelligence teacher at JMU, was one of the actors who was portraying a deaf person.
“A lot of changes need to be made for efficiency and for those with a disability,” she said. “Responders didn’t have the basic tools to help those who are handicapped.”
Reid also said there were too many wounded people that weren’t being cared for.
For the second part of the drill, event planners had to safely evacuate non-injured people on the third floor, which held a number of suites. The third drill was evacuating people inside the stadium who were sitting near the gas explosion.
“There was a big communication gap and officials didn’t know what to do with us,” Reid said. “Overall, I’d say it was good for beginners.”
Jeff Young, the trauma director at UVA Health System in Charlottesville, said things have to go wrong in the drill in order for officials to learn.
“The incident was that we had to evacuate everyone and there were three ways to evacuate, so I think there was some confusion as to where the injured were supposed to be escorted to,” he said.
Robert Truoccolo, who works for UVA Health System Emergency Management, said it’s important for UVA Health System staff to be included in these types of drills because the hospital is a big part in receiving trauma patients. UVA Health System is the closest trauma hospital to Harrisonburg.
“In an actual event like this, we could be receiving patients that exceed our normal volume at the hospital — it could be up by 10, 20, 30 or 40 patients and we would need to be prepared for that,” he said.
Helmuth said it’s beneficial that the city has agencies all over the region that could transport to Harrisonburg and help if a mass incident were to occur.
“Was it perfect? Probably not,” he said. “We will revise and become more prepared from this drill. We’ve been fortunate that nothing like this has ever happened here before.”