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When disaster strikes: Crews train for a variety of sad scenarios

Updated: 2013-04-24T19:49:29Z

By BRIAN BURNES

The Kansas City Star

The first 100 volunteers who drove to Independence Fire Station 7 during a recent public health emergency training exercise received gift cards to area restaurants.

For the record, those cards weren’t necessary to attract a large number of volunteers, said Independence health director Larry Jones. Ultimately about 350 cars lined up during a four-hour exercise on April 11, organized by the Independence Health Department.

Department personnel practiced dispensing emergency medication — in this case candy and small medication vials.

While he and his colleagues largely were pleased with the exercise, Jones noted it also identified some problem areas.

“For example, we found that we had a much longer waiting time than we thought we would,” he said. “So the exercise was valuable to us.”

The 2013 “Regional Public Health Exercise” represented a reasonable facsimile of a public health emergency. It was an example of the occasional training exercises in Jackson County where officials monitor the effectiveness of the response and examine where it could be improved.

It just happened to take place only days before the April 15 Boston Marathon attack.

“This exercise allowed us to practice our traffic control and to be sure our communications system was working,” Jones said.

It was useful in other ways, Jones said. The volunteer “victims,” for instance, were directed to arrive in their cars. If the health department had to respond to some kind of contagious agent, Jones said, that would avoid groups of civilians congregating together.

If the civilians had been exposed to an explosion that included a biological threat, Jones said, medications could have been dispensed in a similar scenario.

Jackson County public safety and health officials share a preparedness culture that pre-dates the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, said Independence Police Chief Tom Dailey, law enforcement subcommttee member of the Regional Homeland Security Coordinating Commitee of the Mid-America Regional Council.

“We have had a whole generation of police offiers come on since 9/11,” said Dailey.

Contemporary officers are routinely alert to possible threats such as illegally parked cars, or cars with sagging trunks, Dailey said. Most large venues have installed vehicle barriers, and most large public events will have a corresponding emergency response plan.

“The goal of terrorists is to erode confidence in the ability of governments to protect its citizens,” Dailey said. “So the most important thing the public needs to know is that we started this a long time ago, and we are constantly checking on our effectiveness.”

Last summer, first responders from Jackson County area took part in another exercise: a coordinated response to a “mass-fatality event.”

At the exercise, conducted over several days at the Central Jackson County Fire District Training Office in Blue Springs, public safety personnel tested a mobile morgue, practiced search and recovery operations, and rehearsed roles in a victim-identification center.

Mike Henderson, operations and investigations chief with the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office who has responded to emergencies across the country, recently began considering a regional response team.

Henderson and others since have worked with the Mid-America Regional Council to form the Kansas City Regional Mortuary Operational Response Group, which includes about 100 members from agencies on both sides of the state line. MARC helped provide equipment, such as generatos and a 53-foot refrigerated trailer.

“Hopefully (an event) never happens, but if it does, we have plans in place and know what we have to do,” said Henderson.

The 2011 Joplin tornado filled Kansas City area public safety personnel with a new resolve to enhance emergency training, he added.

“What made it a little different is that it was in our backyard,” Henderson said. “It seemed to open the eyes of everybody ”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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