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!
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 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?
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.