Emergency Crews Test Skills In Disaster Drill

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As the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks nears, Rim country emergency crews flexed their muscles last week during a disaster drill -- a plan that evolved in response to the terrorists' attacks.

"It's taken until now to see changes in disaster planning. The drill was to practice the new plan," said Jim Heskett, chairman of the Payson Regional Medical Center's emergency preparedness committee. "It was a combination disaster, chemical, biological terrorism plan. While terrorism is unlikely here, an emergency involving chemicals from a rollover is possible."

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Volunteer victim Martha Mathewson in last week's disaster drill, orchestrated by the Payson Regional Medical Center, is led to safety by firefighter Vince Polandri.

Heskett said he and his committee have been working on the revised emergency plan for about five or six months.

The revision puts the Hospital Emergency Incident Command system into place.

"It originated in California and the state has mandated its implementation to be eligible for grants," Heskett said. "It's so we can all be on the same page. Workers from hospitals in Phoenix could come in here and know exactly what to do. It uses the same terminology as the Fire Service Command system."

When the Thursday drill was completed, Heskett and representatives from the other agencies involved met to do an initial assessment of what worked and where things need to be fine tuned. He said each agency will do its own internal assessment as well and in a couple of weeks, they will get back together to compare notes.

"We will develop an alternate location for the emergency department in case it becomes contaminated in a real disaster," he said. "Our patient-tracking system is going to be fine-tuned to know exactly how many patients are present (in a disaster) and where they're at in the hospital."

He said it took a good two months to plan the drill.

"This is something we're required to do two times a year," he said. "Typically one is large, with outside agencies and the other is an internal drill.

The drill last week involved 14 members of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue as volunteer victims; 12 members of the Payson Fire Department; three officers from the Payson Police Department; three members of the Diamond Star Fire Department; two ambulances and staff from Lifestar Ambulance; about six members of the emergency ham radio operators' group; the staff, faculty and students of Gila Community College and about 50 percent of the PRMC staff.

Heskett said there were also observers from the Gila County Health Department.

One of the side benefits of the drill is improving communication with other agencies, he said.

Immediately after the drill, Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi said, "The biggest problem we faced was a lack of manpower -- something we just don't have.

"For (an attack) like this, our initial efforts would be to contain and isolate the area, keep our people safe and keep the casualties to a minimum.

"We certainly identified some areas we need to improve in our training and equipment."

The fire chief was not ready to elaborate on the improvements he would like to see in his department as a result of the drill.

Agreeing with Heskett, deMasi said communication and coordination between agencies was another reason for the drill.

"That's something we always want to practice. The community will see us out there doing this sort of training throughout the year," he said.

Overall, deMasi said, the drill was useful.

Lt. Don Engler was one of the PPD officers participating in the drill. He said, "It went very well. Anytime you participate in something like that it generates a lot of forethought about something you hope you never have to really deal with. It also gives us a chance to see where there are things we need to improve or correct."

Engler said, "The problem for the PD in one of those types of situations (is that) it would be very overwhelming for us shutting down traffic and evacuating people. We need to make call outs more quickly and have a response time that would keep (the situation) from becoming worse."

During the drill, there was some real life drama thrown into the mix when a patient in the emergency room started acting out and the police had to be called in. Heskett said, "A little reality in the drill makes it a better training.

"We've had a cardiac arrest in the middle of one and very busy emergency room days."

While a terrorist attack in the Rim country is not likely, Heskett said if something happens in Phoenix, there will be an impact here.

"Our problem would be an incident in Phoenix sending people to Payson."

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