“Mass casualty incident” on Miner’s Mesa

Multiple rescue agencies respond in training drill

By Patty Unruh

On Saturday, August 24, an accident played out among five cars and a school bus filled with children on Miner’s Mesa above Black Hawk. There were multiple injuries, many serious, and four fatalities. About a dozen rescue agencies responded to the scene. Screams of agony and pleas for help filled the air as paramedics, EMTs, and various officers rushed to aid victims.

Thankfully, the accident was staged and the injuries and fatalities were simulated. The rescue agencies were conducting a training exercise, learning to work together to test their emergency response systems should an MCI – mass casualty incident – occur. The drill was intended to be chaotic and max out the resources of the various agencies. The rescuers were evaluated and graded on their performance. About 70 volunteers played roles as victims.

Agencies taking part in the drill were Gilpin Ambulance, Clear Creek Ambulance, Timberline Fire Protection District, fire departments of Black Hawk, Central City, Golden and Littleton, American Medical Response teams from Boulder and Denver, Colorado State Patrol, Black Hawk Police Department, and the Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office, including its mobile dispatch center.

Cole VanEpps, a paramedic with Gilpin Ambulance, advised that in the event of a large disaster, such as a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or major accident, agencies can be overwhelmed and need to call for additional help. They must be able to work together to make rescues smooth and efficient. The drill was an opportunity to learn and to check the system for flaws.

Rescue workers gathered with their ambulances and fire trucks at a location on the hill below the staged accident. They were not told in advance what scenario they would face, nor would they find out until they arrived at the disaster. The victims’ simulated wounds would represent the full spectrum of possible injuries.

The “victims” included folks from the community, members of the Timberline Fire Auxiliary, and family members of rescue workers. There was even a group of students from Gilpin County School’s Honor Society taking part to get credit for community service.

The day began with volunteers getting moulaged, or made up to look like accident victims. They gathered on Miner’s Mesa in the maintenance fleet facility where emergency vehicles are kept. Personnel from Health One performed the moulage and served as evaluators. Some victims were pale, others had bruises, and still others were made up with broken bones, brain injuries, viscerations (intestines hanging out), and other gory wounds.

Victims had the option of keeping spare tubes of blood (water with food coloring) in a pocket to refresh their wounds during the day. “Be creative,” the makeup artists urged. After all, they would want to look good for the camera; Kustom Car Photography had volunteered to be on hand to donate their services in taking images of the drill for use by the agencies.

When the victims were prepped, VanEpps briefed them. “We’re staging this scenario here where it is safe,” he explained, “but pretend it’s on a busy highway.”

He told them there would be rescuers from multiple fire departments, ambulances, EMTs, paramedics, helicopters, firefighters, dispatchers, “lots of “moving pieces”. They would make it as much like real life as possible. “We’ll start with one responder,” he said. “When they see the reality, they’ll call for help.”

Each victim received a card with information about their injury and whether or not they were supposed to be able to walk away from the scene. VanEpps told them that when rescuers arrived on the scene, they would ask the volunteers for their cards to get assessments of their injuries. Triage would be performed, where responders organized people according to the severity of their injuries. The least wounded would be moved out first; those who could walk would be directed to go to an area away from the accident. Ambulances would transport victims to the “hospital” (the fleet maintenance facility), where rescuers would give information to the drill coordinators, just as they would to a doctor at a real hospital.

Those victims not injured too badly could help others if they wished, as they might at a real accident. They were encouraged to scream, complain, and “make it real.” Those people who accompanied the volunteers but were not victims themselves would make up a crowd of onlookers.

In case of actual emergency during the drill, the plan was for anyone – responder or victim – to say a code word: “banana.” If anyone said that word, everyone was to freeze in their location, and real rescuers would take care of the emergency. When that got resolved, the drill would get back on track.

Safety was the goal for responders and volunteers alike. The responders were to maintain a defined direction of travel, and everyone else was to stay out of the way of emergency vehicles.

Everyone had been having fun getting made up and finding out about their “injuries.” Following the light-hearted but earnest briefing, VanEpps led the volunteers to the accident scene. Realism set in when everyone saw the five cars crushed against the school bus, which was tipped on its side. Fake blood was splattered on broken windows. The victims arranged themselves, spilling out of cars, sitting with heads in hands, or laying on the ground.

“Does anyone still need blood?” “Are you dead?” “No, but I will be.” “I’m walking wounded.” For a few minutes, everyone was laughing as they got in place. Then they quieted down, and the order was given to “push play.”

Within a couple of minutes, a siren announced the arrival of Gilpin Ambulance. People started pounding on car doors and wailing. “We need some help over here!” Responders reassured the victims and set to work providing treatment. Within minutes, the first victims were transported to the hospital setting.

Diane Stundon from Gilpin Ambulance performed dispatch at the staging area. When she got the word that the victims were ready, she began telling the responders when to go. They arrived at the disaster scene in waves. The last ones to arrive signified the ones who had the farthest distance to travel.

Cherokee Blake of the Gilpin Sheriff’s Office was the lead public information officer (PIO). She advised that during a mass casualty incident, a media staging area would be set up as closely and safely as possible. The lead PIO would provide the media with all updates.

For the next few hours, responders worked through the situation, extricating victims from the bus and the cars, placing those unable to walk on stretchers, and transporting victims to the hospital. Two victims were “airlifted” to “Hospital A.” The incident was hectic, yet calm as emergency workers did their jobs. As victims finished up, they washed off their blood and returned to the scene to watch.

When it was all over, it was time for a lunch of 250 sandwiches prepared by the Timberline Auxiliary, followed by AAR, or “after action review.”

Susie Allen of Central City Fire and Rescue noted, “It is great for all the agencies to practice together. It worked well and was a good learning experience.”

The emergency workers were grateful for the volunteers who gave their time to help them practice and learn, most of whom enjoyed playing victim for a day. Liz Presley, an Auxiliary member, noted, “There was a lot to learn about what the responders are doing and to help them out.”

Ariel Planck, a junior at Gilpin County High School, commented, “It made everything more realistic.”

The event was sponsored by FRETAC, the Front Range Emergency Trauma Advisory Council, involving Gilpin, Clear Creek, Boulder, and Jefferson counties. The drill was funded in part by a grant and in part by each agency participating.

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