WAITSFIELD — About 20 people were rescued after suffering the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning at a local telecom company in a simulated mass casualty incident on Saturday.
While volunteer victims played their parts perfectly, it remained for the multiple fire and ambulance crews to respond, rescue, treat and transport victims to area hospitals. Firefighters also had to identify and eliminate the source of the carbon monoxide leak and ventilate the building to ensure it was safe to re-enter.
The action began at 9 a.m. in the garage complex of Waitsfield/Champlain Valley Telecom on Route 100. Emergency services responded to reports that staff inside the building were “feeling giddy and dropping like flies,” in the words of Eric Haskin, who owns the telecom company and has been a volunteer firefighter and EMT in the area for many years.
“Part of our company strategy is to do community service; we thrive on that, to give back to the community, so I opened up the facility for the mass-casualty drill,” Haskin said.
The Waitsfield/Fayston Fire Department was first on scene, followed by its counterpart, Mad River Valley Ambulance service. Northfield and Waterbury ambulance crews also responded to a mutual aid call, and Waitsfield Emergency Management and Vermont Emergency Management officials turned out to coordinate response to the unfolding mock crisis.
Firefighters quickly donned breathing apparatus and entered the building to search for casualties and identify the cause of the crisis.
A short while later, the first of the volunteer victims, who were still conscious and could walk unaided, were escorted out of the building and checked over by EMTs waiting outside.
From a second exit, the more seriously affected volunteer victims, including a pregnant woman, were carried out of the building seated in office chairs so they would not have to be laid on the cold ground. They were then moved to an inflatable triage tent that took just minutes to erect in the parking lot to shelter patients from the elements. EMTs measured vital signs and administered oxygen before placing patients on gurneys to be taken by ambulance to hospital.
“I was a patient working in the garage, and noticed I was dizzy and had a headache and was a little nauseous but otherwise didn’t feel too bad,” volunteer Lisa Williams said. “They came and got us out pretty quickly, but there were definitely other people who were worse off in there.
“I think they targeted the people who needed the most help very quickly … and the EMTs did a really great job,” she added.
Tom Barefoot, of Warren, was another of the patients in the drill and has volunteered with the Mad River Valley Ambulance service for 24 years. He said a large drill like this is rare but helps crews prepare for the real thing, like when a tour bus went off the Sugarbush access road a few years ago.
“That made a mess,” Barefoot said, although he didn’t personally attend the incident. “It’s happened before, and we plan for it because we have to be able to respond to it.”
Waterbury Fire Chief Gary Dillon was one of the observers asked to monitor Saturday’s operation and report back on its effectiveness.
“It’s great that departments in geographic areas work together because they have to during calls,” Dillon said. “If you do it during training and you work out all the glitches, then you have less problems when you have a real incident.
“That’s my focus, to provide other feedback on things that they might have missed,” Dillon added. “Nobody gets everything at every call, but if you start picking up stuff during training, then you start to see that (cooperation).”
Howie McCausland, a volunteer EMT with Mad River Valley Ambulance, played the role of public information officer, responding to inquiries from the press and public.
He said the mass casualty incident response would have followed a 911 call, with fire departments responding immediately and entering the building in teams on a search and rescue mission, followed by triaging patients and taking the seriously injured to the hospital.
McCausland said evaluators, observers and emergency management officials will hold an after-action meeting to evaluate the crisis response. Organizers will take that feedback to the Vermont Emergency Management headquarters in Waterbury for a postmortem, he said.
“This has gone quite well,” McCausland said. “Were this an actual event, there doubtless would be more responders available to help on scene.”
McCausland said the volunteer emergency responders benefited from the drill.
“We all do this because it’s our way of serving the community,” he said. “Besides showing up in the middle of the night to go and help people whose houses are burning or have fallen sick or been in a car accident, there’s an enormous amount of workload in doing trainings like this to keep our skills up.”