Posted on April 7th, 2008
Emergency Agencies Sharpen Coordination
By Jeff Mellot, Daily News-Record
Harrisonburg firefighters simulate an evacuation during a hazardous materials emergency drill at Eastern Mennonite University’s Discipleship Center on Thursday. The simulation was designed to foster cooperation among agencies that handle emergencies in the Valley, and involved as many as 100 participants.
At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, an Eastern Mennonite University student walked into the emergency room at Rockingham Memorial Hospital with a simulated illness.
Fifteen minutes later, two more EMU students went to the campus nurse seeking help for similarly simulated symptoms.
At 9:03, Harrisonburg fire and rescue emergency vehicles with assistance from Rockingham County were called to EMU’s Discipleship Center, where students lay on the floor simulating an intentional release of an insecticide capable of causing nausea and death.
The exercise showed no major changes were needed in the city’s policies and procedures for responding to hazardous materials emergencies, said Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett.
‘This Is A Drill’
The simulation, designed to sharpen cooperation among emergency response agencies and meet state requirements, involved as many as 100 people, Shifflett said. About half of them were at the EMU site, where the drill took place in a simulated science class, he said.
Among the “victims” sprawled on the floor of the Discipleship Center was James Madison University junior Reid Wodicka, 21, of Lynchburg.
Wodicka, a certified Rockingham County firefighter and EMT, “suffered” from seizures and low blood pressure and his breathing had “stopped.”
JMU student Meghann Waranowski, 19, of Finksburg, Md., was weak and short of breath.
And, JMU junior Sean Cunningham, 21, of Woodbridge, was confused and had abdominal pains.
Waranowski, who is in the Integrated Science and Technology program at JMU, found it interesting how firefighters responded.
“They sent just one in, so [fewer] firefighters had to get contaminated,” she said.
And that firefighter, Shifflett added, paused before entering to assess the risk to the people in the room as well as to himself.
The fire turnout suit he was wearing would not protect him in an area contaminated by a deadly chemical, Shifflett said. Still, firefighters are often called on to take such risks to save a life, he said.
“You can become a victim instead of a rescuer,” Shifflett said of the risk.
Wodicka and Cunningham knew what it was like to be emergency responders during a drill.
Cunningham expects to take his firefighter certification exam Monday.
“Everything seemed to run smoothly,” he said.
Wodicka had become a firefighter to complement his public administration major at JMU, as well as to learn more about firefighting and hazardous materials.
“This pertains to that a lot,” he said.
The drill’s lessons were sent home more clearly when the University Commons was evacuated, said EMU Vice President for Student Life Ken Nafziger.
Nafziger is chair of EMU’s crisis management team, which reports to the university president.
EMU officials have their emergency response center in the building where the two students went to see the nurse. But, by doing so, they also contaminated the building, he said.
EMU staff also discovered the JMU students among the victims. The staff contacted their home campus, Nafziger said.
“That was a valuable added twist,” he said. “It was a realistic scenario, because we have guests and visitors.”
Shifflett and Nafziger said the exercise was very realistic. Still, only so much can be simulated, Shifflett said.
But Nafziger said going through the steps has real value.
“We recognize that in the middle of a crisis you will never get it perfect,” he said.