Monthly Archives: February 2013

Cave Rescue

Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

On January 26, 2013 we held a caving introductory class for our members interested in cave rescue.  The concept behind this training is to give interested members an idea of what cave environments are like and to initiate a discussion on the topic of cave rescue.  The members who attended had qualifications in urban search and rescue and some training in wilderness search and rescue.  The goal of this trip was by no means to make them proficient in cave rescue – there are a lot of specialized concepts applicable to caves that are pulled from many other disciplines, but the idea behind the training is to give them a flavor of what cave environments are like and pose questions about how certain things would work in said environments.

The trip was lead by two members of O.M.E.G.A. who have cave rescue training and by a member of the Colorado Cave Rescue Network.  Three members of O.M.E.G.A. came along to receive the exposure training.  Also on the trip were ten other individuals with a variety of caving experience, ranging from beginners to well experienced cavers.  They came from many walks of life, ranging from students to professionals and included members of the military and a political figure.  It was a very large and diversified group.  One member of O.M.E.G.A. stayed on the surface to provide any necessary logistical support.  Consistent with our policy, we will not disclose the names of the individuals on this trip due to the events that transpired on it and we will not name the cave or the area where it is located consistent with the caving community’s policy of protecting caves.

Cave Rescue

The training cave trip started out innocently enough… Photo by M Khaytsus.

The cave is in a wilderness area not far from a population center.  It is in a canyon with limited access and is in effect in a semi-remote wilderness area.  The cave itself is a limestone cave with a little less than a mile of passage.  It is normally accessed from the upper portion of the canyon along a hiking trail three quarters of a mile long.  There is another access point that is a fifth of a mile below the cave, but is harder to reach by vehicle.  The elevation drop from the upper access point to the lower access point is about 400 feet.  Most vehicles were left in a staging area further up the mountain, above the upper access point.

The group hiked down the canyon and entered the cave without any problems.  The cave entrance is a breakdown room with a fairly steep trail leading down and into the cave.  We followed the standard safety briefing when entering the cave.  Use bathrooms outside.  If you need to go in the cave, you are responsible for packing out what you bring in.  Stay on trail.  Wandering away from the group will result in you getting lost and possibly injured.  Know who is in front of you and who is behind you.  If the group starts to spread out too far, make sure that people are made aware.  When climbing always use three points of contact.  Pretty much any part of the body can be a contact point if it is solidly braced.  Don’t mess with any formations that you find.  Don’t use the ceiling to pull yourself up.  In weak areas you may end up pulling the ceiling down on yourself.  This is a fairly standard safety briefing.  The three trip leads then spread themselves to be in the front, middle and back of the group and relied on the assistance of the other experienced cavers in the group to help the newer party members navigate the cave.

The cave is a classic mix of diversified passage.  There is walking passage broken up by areas that require stooping, climbing, crawling and squeezing.  There are a lot of things to experience and a lot of opportunity for fun and challenging feats.  The experienced cavers found the cave to be fairly easy.  Those who were newer to caving found some portions of this cave to be a greater challenge, but in reality everything was well in scope of everyone’s skills.  And it was a great opportunity to discuss rescue tactics in a fairly complicated environment.

The group spent several hours in the cave.  We had a time that we had to be back by and that’s when things started to fall apart.  Everyone was tired from a hard day in the cave.  One of the members lost her footing on a hand line descent and even though she maintained her grip on the rope, she dropped about five feet and impacted the wall rather hard.  She was shaken up, but appeared to be okay to continue on her own.  This was the start of a chain of events that went downhill for the group.  We proceeded slowly towards the exit.  Those moving faster than others were allowed to scramble up the breakdown slope to exit the cave.  The more experienced cavers held back to get those needing a hand out of the cave before continuing out themselves.  We were, at this point, running late.  It was decided that two individuals should go up canyon to let our surface support know that the group was late exiting the cave.  There was no cause for alarm at this point.

The last individuals in the cave were the three trip leads, one of the well experienced cavers and the woman who slipped on the hand line.  She was exhausted and in pain, but determined to exit the cave under her own power.  One of the trip leads exited the cave to get a head count of the party outside.  It’s bad form to leave the cave with fewer people than you entered it with.  We had been doing head counts all day.

The group of four inside was about a hundred feet in.  That’s not a great distance, but they had to negotiate some challenging breakdown terrain and were effectively in the process of an assisted self-rescue.  The trip lead who exited the cave told the nine cavers gathered on the surface that anyone who wanted to head up to clean up and warm up should feel free to do so.  It was about 45ºF outside with a steady light breeze and the sun had already set.  It would only get colder and it already started to drizzle.  There was a three quarter mile hike ahead of the group with an elevation gain of about four hundred feet, a hike better completed while there was still some ambient light.  The group inside was coming out, but it would be slow progress.  Five individuals headed up the canyon.  They were also to deliver a status update.

And that’s when we experienced the second accident.  The woman who was already injured slipped a second time and either pulled or sprained the already injured shoulder.  She was on the last pitch just inside the cave entrance.  Additional individuals had to go back in to the cave to render assistance to get her out of the cave.  This was a fairly lengthy process and it was twilight by the time she was standing on the canyon floor.

The nine individuals outside the cave had some hard decisions to make.  The woman was very much exhausted and in a lot of pain.  Having her walk broken terrain up the canyon was not practical and possibly not even realistic.  We needed to get her to a safe area in as short a time as we could.  A fifth of a mile of downhill broken terrain was infinitely preferred to three quarters of a mile of an uphill push.  It was decided that three individuals, including two of the trip leads, would take the woman down canyon.  The rest of the group would go back up canyon and have one of the four-by-fours drive down and pick up the group at the lower access point.

What the group outside the cave did not know at the time was that the second group to head up canyon to the vehicles did deliver their report that there was an injury causing the delays.  It was immediately decided that a vehicle would drive down to the lower access point in the canyon to render aid and get the injured party out.  It was completely dark by the time the SUV made it down with two O.M.E.G.A. members on board.  One headed up the trail while the other one waited with the vehicle.  The one heading up the trail made it to the cave just in time to meet the group heading to the lower access point.  It took a while to get down to the waiting vehicle and by then it was fully dark.

While the vehicle could take the entire group back up to the staging area at the upper access point, one of the trip leads decided to hike back up the canyon.  There was a concern as to what the third group to go up would do when they reached the upper canyon access point and found the logistics support vehicle gone.  The staging area with all the vehicles was another fifth of a mile and a hundred feet higher on the mountain.  The trip lead would sweep the canyon floor between the lower access point and the upper access point to make sure that no one attempted to come back to mount a rescue.  He would need to negotiate the canyon in the dark, using only his caving headlamp.  It may sound unpleasantly dangerous, but it’s fundamentally no different from spending the day in a dark cave and arguably the canyon terrain was significantly less broken than that of the cave.  He arrived at the upper access point in short time and was picked up by one of the O.M.E.G.A. members to be taken up to the staging area.

In analysis of the incident, the root cause of the accident leading to the assisted self-rescue was exhaustion, resulting in diminished ability to perform required tasks.  It could potentially have been mitigated through early use of granola or power bars or other energy boosting snacks and energy supplementing hydration such as Gatorade or PowerAde.  Support and physical spotting were offered to the injured party early and quickly escalated from hands-off assistance to full support.  After completion of the rescue and some rest, the injured party refused further assistance or medical attention and was able to drive herself home later in the evening.  A final sweep of the canyon was a good idea, but in retrospect should not have been performed by a single individual due to safety concerns of a lone traveler in the dark in a remote wilderness area.  Radios were not used in the rescue because propagation of the signal is very limited in caves and no one considered the potential need for rescue coordination outside of the cave.  This is a practice that we will reevaluate for future training events.

The injured individual was doing much better the following day and the incident turned out to be a minor rescue.  Bad things happen to good people often due to no fault of their own.  It is important to remember that safety should be a primary concern in all outdoor activities and contingency plans are very important.  When going out to take advantage of outdoor recreation it is always important to understand the terrain challenges that you will be facing and the level of complexity that you will have to deal with.  Always let someone know where you are going and how long you intend to be out.  Make sure that they are not afraid to make a call for help in the event you do not return on time, given an appropriate margin for delays.  Search and rescue in Colorado and most other areas across the United States is free of charge and available by dialing 911.

No formations were damaged in the performance of this rescue.

Hypothermia

Winter is a good time to look at the subject of hypothermia, but winter isn’t the only time that hypothermia is a concern in Colorado.  Snow has fallen in the state in every month of the year.

Residents and tourists engage in hiking and other outdoor activities during every part of the year.  Weather conditions can change rapidly in Colorado.  Each year we have someone who is caught in a rainstorm or a snow storm unprepared and dies.  With that introduction, let’s look at the way hypothermia sneaks up and how it can kill and what to do to defend against it.

Hypothermia

Stage 1: Exposure and Exhaustion

The moment that your body can’t produce enough heat to keep up with heat loss to the environment, you are in a state of exposure.  Typically two things happen:

1. You start to move around or exercise to keep warm.

2. Your body makes involuntary changes in blood flow to protect vital organs.  Eventually you begin to shiver as the body tries to compensate for the heat loss.  Energy reserves begin to be drained at an ever increasing rate.

How rapidly the onset of exposure occurs depends on the physical condition you are in, how much you have already exercised, what kind of clothing you are wearing, whether or not you are wet, and if you are hydrated and have high energy food to eat.

Stage 2: Hypothermia

If exposure continues, your reserves of energy will become depleted.  At this point two things happen:

1. Brain function becomes impaired with judgment and power of reasoning diminishing.

2. Hands stop functioning and appendages may start to lose feeling with reduced circulation.  Speech becomes difficult and slurred.

This is the onset of full blown hypothermia.  Your body core temperature will continue to drop and when it gets to a temperature of 92ºF to 86ºF, you will have reached sever hypothermia, which is immediately life threatening.

People often associate hypothermia with extremely low temperatures when in actuality most cases occur between 50ºF and 30ºF.  Many outdoorsmen have a hard time believing that such temperatures are dangerous, which can prove fatal.

Defenses Against Hypothermia

1. Hypothermia preparedness should be first on your mind before you begin any trek.  Make sure you are over prepared even if you only plan on being out for a few hours.  Take essentials in a day pack to get you through at least one night on the trail.  Energy bars, plenty of water (hydration packs are great), extra clothing, a space blanket, wool socks, a first aid kit, and a means to make a fire are the bare minimum.

2. Stay dry.  Wet clothing loses 90% of its insulating capability.  Wool is the best material even when wet.  It also wicks moisture away from the body.

3. Get out of the wind.  Seek shelter from the wind if you don’t have the proper clothes to put on.  Even a slight breeze on your bare skin drastically increases convective heat loss.  If you are wet and in the wind, you have compounded the problem.

4. Understand how you lose heat. There are four ways that the body loses heat:

• Radiation – Your body is constantly radiating heat and the top of your head loses heat the fastest.

• Conduction – If your body is in contact with a surface or a liquid that is cooler than your skin, you will conduct heat to the cooler surface or liquid.

• Convection – Air flowing over your body drags warm air you have trapped around you away from the surface of your skin.

• Evaporation – Sweat or water on your skin takes heat with it when it evaporates.  50ºF water is bitterly cold and can quickly lead to hypothermia.

5. Avoid or terminate exposure.  If you did not come prepared for cold conditions, terminate the exposure.  Don’t continue the activity you had set out to accomplish such as the hike, the climb, the fishing or whatever you had planned.  It is not brave or wise, but foolish and could end up in a disaster for you or someone in your party.

• Get out of the rain, snow or wind as soon as possible.  Concentrate on making or finding shelter.

• Build a fire in a safe location near your shelter.

6. Persistent or violent shivering is a sign of clear and present danger of hypothermia setting in.  Make camp quickly before it becomes impossible during the later stages of hypothermia.

7. Don’t wait until you are exhausted to stop and prepare to camp.  If you delay, you may not have the energy reserves to properly prepare shelter or a fire.  Hypothermia is seductive, you may feel fine one minute and in the next you can’t think clearly or find the strength to do what is needed for survival.  When this happens, your body’s ability to produce heat drops by 50% or greater.  Now you are in a critical life threatening situation.

8. Stay hydrated.  Dehydration impairs the body’s ability to regulate body heat and metabolism and aids exposure leading to hypothermia.

9. Hypothermia awareness is another line of defense.  Know the signs and watch for them.  They are:

• Shivering uncontrollably.

• Difficulty speaking or slurred speech.

• Difficulty using your hands or general mobility.

• Difficulty thinking, incoherent thoughts or delirium, memory lapses.

• Drowsiness (this is the hand of death on your shoulder).

• Staggering and uneven gait.

• Exhaustion and the inability to get up after a rest and continue moving.

10. Treat hypothermic conditions immediately. Believe the symptoms in you or someone else. Don’t be in denial or you or a member of your party may die. Don’t be talked out of it by someone else but demand treatment. Take the following actions:

• Get the victim out of the exposed conditions (wind, rain, snow, etc.).

• Get out of wet clothing.

• For a mildly impaired person, give them something warm to drink and get them into warm, dry clothing or a sleeping bag or a space blanket.  Warm canteens or rocks well wrapped and placed against the victim will speed recovery.

• In severe cases where the patient is semi-conscious, leave them stripped and place them in a space blanket or sleeping bag with another person.  Remember what I said about conduction — it works to warm up a cold body, too.  Skin against skin is the most effective way to warm up the victim or to mutually stay warm.

• Build a fire in a safe location near your camp/shelter.  It is typically warmer under a tree and tree limbs can be used to make a shelter to reflect heat back at you and keep the wind off of you.  A cleft in the rock or a cave can also make good shelter.

Cave Repair

Spelunker vs Caver

Moe:  Hey Joe.  I heard you were a spelunker.

Joe:  Naw.  I’m a caver.

Moe:  What’s the diff?

Joe:   Well.  A spelunker is someone who will go into a cave wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops.  Kinda what you’re wearing now.  Maybe a flashlight and a six-pack or two.  He wanders around without paying a lot of attention to where he is going.

Moe:  What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?

Joe:  Nothing.  It’s just that a caver wears closed toed shoes to protect his feet and sufficient clothes for the environment.  He will have at least three sources of light, food and water to last at least twenty-four hours, as well as other required gear.

Moe:  Sounds like a lot of bother.

Joe:  The caver is the one who will rescue the spelunker’s sorry tail when he is lost and/or injured.

Moe:  Oh.  Well.  What if I crawl through a tight tunnel and fall in a hole and break my leg?

Joe:  Then you’ll be happy to know I have been through Colorado Cave Rescue Network’s training.

Moe:  Colorado Cave Rescue Network?

Joe:  Yeah.  The Colorado Cave Rescue Network.

Moe:  So, you’d be able to get me out?

Joe:  Yep.  However, we’d need to be careful to minimize damage to the cave.

Moe:  WHAT?!  Caves are made of rock!  How could you damage it?

Joe:  The formations like stalactites, soda straws, popcorn, ribbon and stuff like that are very fragile and break if bumped.

Moe:  So what happens if you damage stuff getting me out?

Joe:  Then we call in a speleothem repair team.

Moe:  A spello what?

Joe:  A speleothem repair team.  They repair cave formations.

Moe:  They can repair all the damage?  Then why do you need to be careful?

Joe:  They can repair a lot, but it’s a lot of effort and time.  And, there is no guarantee that a formation can be repaired.  It is better not to damage anything.

Moe:  Oh.  And here I thought caving and spelunking were the same thing.

Joe’s right.  Speleothem, or cave formation, repair takes a lot of time and patience.  It’s kind of like putting together a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle without the luxury of a picture of the end result or knowing if all the pieces are there to start with.

Cave Repair

Speleothem repair is not difficult.  It’s akin to working a three dimensional puzzle without a final reference picture in many cases.  It is, also, time consuming.

Tools of the Trade

The basic tools of the trade are minimal, but as with all toolsets, there are items that can enhance your repertoire.  The basic tools consist of distilled water, an epoxy or glue and a tripod with weights.  Other items that can be helpful include: dental picks, paper towels, grout, parchment paper, straws, archeology bamboo tools, baby wipes and a spray bottle.

The adhesive used is either an epoxy or a glue that does not grow mold, works in cool, moist places (most Colorado caves are 55 degrees or cooler) and can take from a second to twenty-four hours to set.  Some epoxies actually use water as an accelerant.  Many times the cave where the repair is occurring has an adhesive that has been sanctioned for that cave system.  Keep in mind that epoxy has a shine to it.  Many epoxies have a tint to them as well.  Many times the glue is a two part compound which requires mixing.  Take care when working with these adhesives so that you do not adhere yourself or anyone else to a permanent fixture in the cave.

Distilled water is used to rinse off and clean the ends to be glued together.  We use distilled water if at all possible to keep from introducing contaminates to the cave system.

A tripod and weight system is used to help hold the pieces in place without movement.  This is especially helpful for stalactites when using a slow setting epoxy.  This way a human does not have to sit and hold the piece without moving or shaking.  An old camera tripod is great.  A couple aluminum balance arms with screw taps and wing screws are additional parts to add to the tripod.  A small ditty bag for holding the counter-weights.  The counter-weights can be lead weights, rocks, etc.

The dental picks are used to clean the ends of speleothems before attaching them to each other.  Use gently.  The archeology bamboo shoots are also a good choice as they are softer than the speleothem and less likely to cause damage.

Grout can add color if the repair is external.  When mixing grout with epoxy, the “wet” color is the dry color.  Epoxy does not adhere to parchment paper.  This can be helpful with mixing and providing a backing to work against.  Grout can be used to add color to the surface for blending.  A straw can be used to puff grout or local “dirt” on a surface to better color-blend the repair area.  If grout is mixed with (distilled) water to fill in an area, realize that the wet color and the dry color are different.  Check and mix your grout colors and compare to the area for color matching prior to adding water.

Getting the Parts

The first thing to do is get all the pieces and determine where they go and how they fit together.

If a piece was broken and all pieces were collected and handed to you or placed off to the side, this is the preferred start to the repair process.  You have all the parts.  You just need to fit them together and then lay them out in an “exploded” view.

If a number of pieces were damaged in an area, then the first task is to determine a breakage pattern:

    • Are the pieces directly beneath or very close to the parts?
    • Did something roll/charge through to where the parts are pushed forward or out to the sides?
    • Did someone swing a stick so the parts went flying in an arc?

Once you have a breakage pattern, it is a little easier to find and match parts.  For multiple sets, flagging tape can be used to mark pieces that go together and the formation to which they should be attached.

Rinsing the ends with distilled water allows for a way of matching stalactites and stalagmites to each other.  The insides of stalactites and stalagmites have circles similar to trees.  Some also have crystallization as well.  Using these rings and the diameter or size will help in finding parts that may go together.  If there are a lot of parts, a suggested method is to rinse the ends of all pieces, place them on a shelf, or shelves, based on diameter, small to larger or vice-versa, with an end showing.  This will make it a bit easier to find a part with a matching ring pattern.

When two pieces look like they might fit together, the next step is the fit test.  Like a jigsaw puzzle, when pieces of a cave formation fit together correctly, they will ‘click’ into place.  The final seating is more a feel than a look.

Putting the pieces together

Cave Repair

A broken ribbon of “bacon” is laid out in preparation for restoration work. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Now that we have our tools and have found our pieces, let’s put them together.

For small pieces, we can put the pieces together and then attach them to the formation.  For larger pieces, due to weight, it is better to attach a piece to the formation at a time.

If using an epoxy with an accelerant, the adhesive typically sets within one second or less.  Use with caution.  Epoxy without an accelerant can take thirty to sixty seconds to set (still tacky) and twenty-four hours to have a permanent hold.  A point to note, the epoxy of choice to be used in caves has good tensile (length pull) strength, but no shear (side ways) strength.  Two part glues take twenty-four hours or more to be able to support the weight of the formation, especially large formations.

Cave Repair

The counter-balance supports the repaired pieces while the adhesive is allowed to cure. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Cave Repair

A close-up of the final results, with adhesive still drying. Photo by D Hilfinger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When attaching the part(s) to the formation, the tripod is your friend.  For stalactites or other formations attached to the ceiling, pressure needs to be applied in an upward direction.  For stalagmites and formations that attach to the ground, a downward pressure is applied.  Why not use the weight of the ground formation to apply the necessary weight?  For larger formations, say eight pounds or more, you can.  However, smaller formations do not provide enough weight to get a good seal on the adhesive.

When you attach the pieces, prior to adding the adhesive, do a double check of fit.  Make sure you have the right pieces and that they click together.  Check the tripod for fit.  Ideally, having a team of two is good.  While you hold the piece(s) in place, your buddy can set up and place the tripod.  After you have confirmed the fit and tripod placement, your buddy can apply the accelerant, if using one, and the adhesive, then you fit the pieces together and hold.  If you get too much adhesive and it squirts out, your buddy can use a damp rag/towel that you had ready to wipe off the excess.  Your buddy can also set and balance the tripod so you can let go.  Once the adhesive sets, you can gently remove the tripod and set the next piece.  Once all parts have been adhered to the formation, if possible, leave the tripod set up from the last piece, for eight to twelve hours to let the adhesive cure completely.

Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repair teams match, clean and set formations to repair damage.  On average cave formations grow at a rate of 1” per 100 years.  Anything that is broken in a careless act will not be repaired by nature for hundreds of years to come, if ever at all…

 

Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.

Cave Repair

Cave Repair. Photo by D Hilfinger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you are done, make sure to clean up all of your stuff.

Though we have gone through the simple steps of speleothem repair, it is much better that care be taken and the need for repair not be required.  Should you find yourself in a cave, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.

Road Trouble

Background:

An uneventful Friday midmorning commute through a quiet rural area suddenly takes a turn for the worse.  As a fast moving snow storm packing 45-mph winds and rapidly falling temperatures sweeps through the high plains, motorists are caught in a swirling white-out.  Drivers slowing down due to a lack of visibility and icing road conditions initiate a chain of collisions ultimately resulting in twenty-six cars and five semi-trucks involved in numerous accidents.  Loaded semi-trucks from the local meat packing plant are jackknifed, blocking all lanes of traffic.  Numerous autos have collided with several tanker trucks that are hauling chemicals to the regions oil and gas industry.  Fortunately, victims’ injuries are limited to non-life threatening bumps and bruises.  Compounding the seriousness of the incident, however, is a lack of access – the divided highway has limited on- and off-ramps.  More than five hours pass before the authorities sort out the many accidents and re-open the highway.

Sounds like a scene from a Hollywood disaster movie, doesn’t it?  BUT – these events actually happened on January 11, 2013 near Ft. Lupton, Colorado.  The next day, Saturday, January 12, O.M.E.G.A.’s CERT committee hosted a tabletop exercise featuring a nearly identical scenario of a massive multi-vehicular accident.  While the timing of the tabletop exercise in relation to the Ft. Lupton incident is purely coincidental, the simple fact is that none of us knows when disasters and emergencies will strike.  In the event we should find ourselves in a similar situation, the best preparation is to keep our skills as sharp as possible.  The CERT committee can help you reach that goal!

FEMA Exercise Graphic

FEMA Exercise Graphic

The January 12 tabletop is the second to be hosted by the CERT committee in the past four months.  This type of exercise is held in an informal setting and does not include hands-on practice or field work, but is intended to generate discussion of various issues regarding a hypothetical, simulated emergency.  Objectives of a tabletop exercise include enhancing general awareness, validating plans and procedures, rehearsing concepts, and assessing the types of systems needed to cope with a defined incident.  Delivered in a low-stress environment, the tabletop offers participants an opportunity to explore different ideas in the context of a real-world scenario.  All participants are encouraged to contribute to the discussion and should remember that decisions are made in a “no-fault” environment.  A major advantage of tabletop exercises is that they are held indoors – in this case, inside the Southglenn Library.  The outside temperature on that Saturday never reached 20ºF, but the participants remained warm and cozy inside!

Why should O.M.E.G.A. members consider this type of training?  The obvious answer, of course, is to practice previously learned skills.  Beyond that, however, our focus should be on O.M.E.G.A.’s purpose and mission – “supporting public safety through hosting emergency preparedness exercises, providing training, supporting the missions of first responder organizations and assisting our served agencies in the event of a disaster.”  With a voluntary membership consisting of a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and training, continual improvement of personal capabilities must be a common goal.

 
The Exercise:

The scenario, eerily similar to the Ft. Lupton incident, is as follows:

It is a cold, rainy December afternoon.  The temperature is in the low 40’s, and it is predicted to fall as the sun goes down.  Around 3:30 p.m. a vehicle attempted to pass a tanker truck and skidded in front of the truck and struck the guard rail.  The truck jackknifed, causing a chain reaction of crashes behind it.

Among the vehicles involved is a school bus with twenty-five children on board.  There is a car blocking the front door to the bus.  The driver appears to be unconscious.  The students in the bus are starting to panic and are trying to leave the bus through the back door.  The door will not open because a pickup truck has skidded into the back of the bus, blocking the exit.

Traffic quickly backs up behind the accident.  Traffic on the other side of the highway is not impeded, but many drivers slow down to look at the accident scene.  A few people who were not involved in the accident get out of their cars and respond with CERT backpacks and putting on personal protective equipment (PPE).

 

Seven O.M.E.G.A. members attended, in addition to the exercise facilitator.  From the outset, the lively discussion was an indication the participants were fully involved in the exercise.  The exercise is planned to focus on several objectives –

· Validate the decision-making process to prioritize incidents.

· Validate procedures to establish Incident Command System and assign roles.

· Assess plans and protocols for communicating between the team and professional responders, between the CERT Command Post and the field, and between team members.

· Evaluate the procedures for locating a medical treatment area.

· Validate CERT size-up procedures.

Highlights from the exercise include:

Initial reaction – go directly to damaged vehicles and search for casualties – however, this action exposes the individual to unknown hazards – need to pursue the “typical” CERT formula of developing ICS and proceed from there.

Calling 9-1-1 immediately was a unanimous decision.

Establishing an ICS structure – who should take charge?  How to proceed if none of the CERT people knew each other?

Perform size-up not only of accident scene but nearby surroundings to assist with setting up a medical area and evacuation area for children on bus – where?

Concurrently, set up Incident Command Post – where?

Supporting documents for scenario included maps of accident site illustrating location of damaged and undamaged vehicles, and a nearby rest area.

If all of the ICS positions can’t be filled with qualified personnel, how are the search-and-rescue teams formed?

How do the teams communicate with the Incident Command Post?

How do the weather conditions – approaching nightfall in a freezing rain – affect responder actions?

Additional exercise documents include damage assessment forms that would be completed by the search-and-rescue teams; these forms contain information on amount of damage to individual vehicles, visual condition of victims in each vehicle (if any), if there is access to each vehicle and specific information on the rest area building and surroundings.

Are the children safer in the bus or should they be evacuated?  If the decision is to evacuate, where to and who should be in charge?

Lessons Learned:

Communications between participants – keeping participants on topic was an issue.  The natural tendency is to deviate from the discussion at hand and interject personal stories and anecdotes.  A challenge for facilitator is to keep the group’s discussion moving forward without hindering individual input.

Number of participants – Once again, the relatively low number of participants prohibited full development of exercise, hampering the formation of traditional SAR teams and not allowing all of the ICS roles to be filled.

In hindsight, the participants should have been seated closer together to encourage a more personal level of conversation.  Also, only one set of maps/damage assessments should have been provided to the entire group.  This would have generated greater personal contact and, hopefully, deeper conversation.