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Victoria first responders drilled in mock catastrophe

By Melissa Crowe
Sept. 5, 2012 at 4:05 a.m.
Updated Sept. 6, 2012 at 4:06 a.m.

Several Victoria College emergency medical technician students played victims in a mock mass casualty collision and chemical spill Wednesday.

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Victoria Emergency Management's "tour bus catastrophe" drill tested the strengths and weaknesses of area first responders.

Wednesday's full-scale exercise is the best place to safely test their abilities, Emergency Management Coordinator Jeb Lacey said.

"The purpose of an exercise isn't to do it perfect, it's to learn," Lacey said. "From that standpoint, I think it was an excellent exercise."

Victoria leads the region in hazardous materials response, "but you can always get better," Lacey said.

The scenario, played out in the parking lot at Victoria Community Center, included a crashed tour bus, a toxic chemical spill of anhydrous ammonia and 18 fatalities.

Participating agencies included Victoria Fire Department and Police Department, Victoria County Fire Department, the Victoria Office of Emergency Management, the Department of Public Safety, the Victoria County Sheriff's Office, the local Emergency Planning Committee, the Golden Crescent Regional Hospital Advisory Committee and the Victoria Civilian Fire Academy Alumni Association.

Volunteers from Community Emergency Response Team, American Red Cross and Victoria College acted as injured victims in the mock catastrophe.

Michelle Kroll, 43, participated as a volunteer through her emergency medical technician program at Victoria College.

Her character was badly blistered from the chemical spill and she could not find her son.

"It's cool," she said, as she waited in mock agony for medical care to arrive. "It gives us a little more experience."

Juan Hernandez, 19, also joined the exercise through the Victoria College EMT program.

He and several others played characters injured under the bus.

"Since we're in the program, why not see it from a victim's perspective," he said.

First responders needed to assess the scene, deploy resources, worked through public warning and notifications and decontaminate patients.

The state requires fire departments to conduct full-scale exercises every three years. Because of federal regulations, real world incidents cannot substitute the exercise.

Lacey said his office and the fire departments have worked the past two years to identify potential hazardous materials situations.

They conducted a "commodity flow," thanks to a federal grant, that identified materials traveling in and out of Victoria County via roadways, railways and waterways. They also studied what hazardous materials are stored within the county.

Both these studies helped them identify the threats and risks, so they can find gaps and vulnerabilities to plan for.

Wednesday's exercise showed "a willingness to work together in an effective manner to make good decisions, leverage what resources they have, and to not hesitate to reach outside the region and the state for capabilities that they didn't have readily available," Lacey said.

Victoria Fire Marshal Tom Legler said they will discuss their strengths and weaknesses during a review Thursday.

"As far as I can tell, everything went fairly well," he said. "We're looking for anything - from little to big things - to improve on. There may be something as simple as reprogramming a radio to identifying training and equipment needs."

He said the exercise showed the responders "what we're capable of" and helps pinpoint short- and long-term goals.

"The biggest thing is this isn't just a one time deal," Legler said. "Our training is constantly in motion."

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