A pregnant woman in labor held her stomach Wednesday morning as she waited outside the emergency room of the Pattie A. Clay Regional Medical Center. Beside her, a woman with blood running down her forehead lay on the ground with a blanket wrapped around her. An anxiety-ridden woman stood nearby, telling a hospital staff member she was sure she had been exposed to dangerous chemicals.
The women were unable to enter the hospital until they could be led through a massive tent, inside of which they would undress and wash themselves. Hospital staff members, clad in Hazmat suits complete with breathing apparatuses, directed their patients on what to do inside the “Zumro” tent, designed to decontaminate people.
The women were not really in need of medical attention. They were a group of senior Eastern Kentucky University nursing students who served as patients for this year’s annual county-wide emergency drill by the Madison County Emergency Management Agency (EMA)/Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP). The students’ make-up, which made their assumed injuries look real, was applied at the EMA office, where they were assigned their roles for the exercise.
“It is a good experience for (the students) to see both sides of the scenario,” said Elaine Waters, a nursing professor at EKU whose class participated. “It is a real-world tragedy learning experience, and the students can learn about triaging and how the Hazmat site works.”
The drill, which began just before 9 a.m. Wednesday with the sounding of emergency sirens throughout the county, serves to ensure all emergency agencies in the county are ready in the event of a chemical emergency at the Blue Grass Army Depot, said Justine Barati, congressional liaison with the Joint Munitions Command who also works with CSEPP.
A group of 28 evaluators from across the country watched the drill in Madison County, and will report on the strengths and weaknesses of the various agencies’ response, Barati said.
Wednesday’s “accident” happened when two people working in the chemical area at the depot fell into some of the chemical. A third person then suffered a heart attack, Barati said. The spill involved an M55 rocket that contained GB nerve agent.
“This caused a plume of nerve agent,” she said. “It’s a very unlikely scenario, but part of being prepared is imagining unlikely situations.”
Across town from the hospital, Carl Richards, director of the Madison County Emergency Management Agency, sat in a room at the Madison County Emergency Operations Center that was filled with people.
Richards was on the phone with the Blue Grass Army Depot and emergency agencies from several other counties in Kentucky.
“There was a small explosion at the depot,” Richards said after emerging from the operations center. “It affected Zone 1c, which contains about 1,160 residents.”
The residents were told to shelter in place until 10:35 a.m., when they would be evacuated to Powell County High School in Stanton, Richards said.
EMA officials had asked for assistance from the National Guard and other supports, he said.
If the scenario had actually occurred as exercised, with the same weather conditions, the communities affected would have included Countryside Estates, Brassfield, Bybee, Speedwell and Herron’s Landing.
Several schools also participated in the drill by “sheltering in place.”
At Clark Moores Middle School, everyone in the school moved to the inner part of the building, which was then sealed off. No one was allowed to enter or leave.
The drill also requires closing and locking all windows and doors, turning off heating, air conditioning and fans and shutting all air vents and all other ventilation systems.
Larry Barton, principal of Clark Moores, said another safety measure at the school is a pressurization system. The system is activated during county-wide drills.
“In the event of an emergency, it would pressurize the building so no chemicals could get in,” he said. “It’s not a very pleasant feeling. It feels like air blowing in your face.”
The students were aware of the drill before it happened, Barton said.
Richards said he feels the county performed satisfactorily, and met the goals of ensuring the safety of people and the environment.
“Obviously you do exercises to tweak things,” he said. “But I think we accomplished what we needed to.”
Steve Horwitz, public affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he was pleased with the amount of work that was put into the drill.
“The level of effort means a lot,” he said. “Pattie A. Clay is always very much into the exercise.”
All of the emergency room staff at Pattie A. Clay is trained in what to do in case of a chemical emergency, said Jill Williams, spokesperson for the medical center. Others from different units also are trained, so they can be recruited to help out.
Groups involved in the exercise included: the depot, local law enforcement agencies, fire departments, medical personnel and hospitals, the Madison County Health Department, Eastern Kentucky University and Madison County Schools.
CSEPP, which has been around since 1989, works to ensure communities are actively engaged in ensuring community safety in the event of a chemical accident, Horwitz said.
“There was a saying I learned in the Navy,” Horwitz said. “‘The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle.’ I think that applies here.”
To find out more about CSEPP, visit www.fema.gov/government/grant/csepp.
A draft of the evaluators’ report will be available Monday, Richards said. The final report should be finished within 30 days.
Kelly McKinney can be reached at kmckinney @richmondregister.com or 624-6694.