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Preparing for the worst

 

MUW nursing students Jordan Graham, William Jones and Jason Berry go through the gross decon dung the Emergency Drill at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle Thursday morning. The drill simulated a chemical spill and the procedures for caring for those injured. Gross decon is the first step of cleaning the chemicals from the victims by simply rinsing them with water.

MUW nursing students Jordan Graham, William Jones and Jason Berry go through the gross decon dung the Emergency Drill at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle Thursday morning. The drill simulated a chemical spill and the procedures for caring for those injured. Gross decon is the first step of cleaning the chemicals from the victims by simply rinsing them with water. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

Mississippi University for Women sophomore Ashley McReynolds spent Thursday morning at the hospital, being hosed down by Columbus firefighters and going through a "decontamination" process for people with serious chemical-related injuries. 

 

"It was cold," she said as she stood in a parking lot near Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, a few minutes after emerging from the "decon" tent where Baptist nurses in hazmat suits had taken her wedding ring and other jewelry and searched her for chemicals or injuries. 

 

She wasn't really in danger -- the nursing student was among more than 100 MUW students who participated in this year's multi-agency emergency drill. The Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency holds the drill every year with local and state response agencies to test communications, policies and general preparedness in the event of a major catastrophe in Columbus. In this year's scenario, a chemical spill near MUW's campus sent 113 students to Baptist with possible nerve damage. 

 

"Not sure what container it was, if (the chemicals) came from a semi-truck or a train derailment," said Columbus Fire and Rescue engineer Dale Ballard, who was acting as public information officer for the event. "... But they've been exposed to a chemical. 

 

"Not sure of the severity of it," he added. "As far as we know, there are no serious injuries." 

 

CFR firefighters, some in hazmat suits (which protect them when exposed to hazardous materials), set up trucks on the side of a field by Baptist and turned on their hoses, spraying the 113 patients covered in the "chemicals." The shivering students then lined up outside a tent so nurses could check them more thoroughly. A handful of students ended up on stretchers for paramedics to load them into ambulances, so Baptist could test its emergency room preparedness. 

 

 

 

Agencies coming together 

 

In addition to Baptist, MUW and CFR, personnel from Columbus Police Department, Columbus Air Force Base and Golden Triangle Hazmat Team were all on scene, and Lowndes County E911, the Mississippi Department of Health and various other health facilities also participated. 

 

Josh Mascagni, a registered nurse with Baptist's Intensive Care Unit, was one of the nurses in the tent checking the students for "injuries." It took him and three other nurses about 10 minutes to put on the full hazmat suits, which create a sealed barrier around their bodies so they can treat patients with chemicals on them without passing those chemicals on to other patients. 

 

"It's hot in here and I can barely hear, but it's great!" he laughed. 

 

In the 2 1/2 years he's worked at Baptist, Mascagni has never needed the suit for any actual emergency. Still, he said, it's better to be prepared. 

 

"There needs to be an established protocol in place so we know how to respond and we can respond effectively for the benefit of everybody," he said. 

 

That was especially beneficial for the nursing students involved, said Cathy Smith, assistant professor of nursing at MUW.  

 

"They need the hands-on experience to see how the real world operates, to see how agencies all come together," Smith said. 

 

In general, Ballard thought those agencies came together well -- though there are always improvements to be made with communication, he said. The agencies planned a debriefing meeting for after the drill to discuss, in more detail, what went well and what could still use improvements. 

 

"If it was something life-threatening, a real incident, we would have had even more (first responders) on scene," he said. "And I think you can see, these agencies don't just sit around. They train on this stuff." 

 

In a real-world scenario, he said, there would be more crowd control, and the only people near the chemicals -- or the students covered in those chemicals -- would be wearing hazmat suits, meaning media and many first responders would stay at an information center set far away from the spill. 

 

He added that in his 14 years at CFR, he's never had to deal with an emergency on this scale. It can be difficult to know how agencies and first responders would actually react in real life, he said. That's why they have to train -- the more training first responders have, the more likely they are to fall back on that training. 

 

"It's like the saying: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst," he said.

 

 

 

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