Some find disaster drill short on reality

A peaceful panic at PNC Park

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What if you had a disaster and nobody panicked?

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Sandy Bulischeck (in wheelchair), of Greenock, is assisted by firefighter Steve Grenesko, of Engine & Truck Co. 4, after passing through a secondary decontamination shower during the Emergency Preparedness Exercise at PNC Park. The firefighter at right is unidentified.
Click photo for larger image.

That was the situation yesterday at PNC Park, where a make-believe terrorist bombing attracted almost 5,500 volunteer victims. Not a one became confused, hysterical or unruly. All of them obeyed the public address announcer, who asked people to walk, not run, out of the ballpark.

Equally cool were some 600 police officers, firefighters, medics, physicians and ballpark ushers. Even with television cameras in their faces, they showed no sign of tension or temper.

The training exercise was budgeted at $750,000 in public money, funneled to Pittsburgh from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But not even that level of spending could create genuine human emotion or account for the possibilities of human error.

Volunteers -- who gave up their Saturday to be bombed, evacuated, stripped of their clothes on General Robinson Street and sent through decontamination showers -- said the drill seemed antiseptic.

"I was hoping for a little bit more reality," said Scott Cook, a former Marine, of Beaver Falls. "I wanted to see what actually would happen."

Public officeholders and government workers touted the drill as an opportunity to measure how well emergency workers communicate and respond to a mass emergency.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
An official in a gas mask and protective clothing passes through the stands among "dead" and "injured" fans.
Click photo for larger image.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy said such planning could only help save lives. He remembered that, the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the city discovered it had no clear plan for evacuating Downtown skyscrapers. That realization came after one of the hijacked jets veered into Western Pennsylvania airspace.

Drills such as the one at the ballpark might highlight other communication failings or flaws that can be corrected before a disaster happens, Murphy said.

The drill scenario went like this: In the top of the second inning of a Pirates game, a suicide bomber blows himself up, injuring spectators in Section 128. That explosion rang out at 1:08 p.m.

Then, in theory, an ambulance exploded as it traveled through the left field gate, burying several fans in rubble and releasing the chemical weapon sarin, the same agent used in a 1995 Tokyo subway attack.

As fans left PNC Park, they went through a newly installed shower system at the home-plate gate. This cascade of water would help cleanse their skin of the chemical. Then they took hot showers, stripped and were sent through decontamination tents with a mild detergent spray.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Mercedes Flinn of Brighton Heights passes through a decontamination shower as she leaves the ballpark.
Click photo for larger image.

Two of the tents were in place yesterday, an advantage ballpark security probably would not have normally. Port Authority buses to transport the injured lined the Roberto Clemente Bridge, another modification of real-life circumstances to squeeze the disaster exercise into an eight-hour day.

At nearby Allegheny General Hospital, staffers also got a head start on events by having a decontamination tent ready in the emergency parking lot and donning protective gear.

At about 1:15, they saw smoke above the ballpark. If the prevailing winds blew it over Allegheny General, the hospital would have gone to "code black," and been closed to incoming patients.

David Kish, the emergency department's nursing director, said the county's emergency operations center alerts hospitals about incoming casualties. Typically, the department also gets a heads-up from LifeFlight dispatchers, who monitor police, fire and emergency medical services radio frequencies.

Around 1:30, pagers started to go off and soon after, blast victims who walked up to Allegheny General's emergency room were being directed to the decontamination tents. Their personal effects and clothes were bagged and tagged.

Tracking large numbers of patients is challenging, Kish said.

"How do you get them [registered], how do you match them up with family members, who may be at other hospitals?" he said. If terrorism caused the incident, clothes and other items could be needed for evidence, so legal requirements must be met.

Staff were brought in from other parts of the hospital to help out, Kish explained. If matters had grown worse, more would have been called in from home.

Medical, nursing, logistics, security, communications and other key representatives gathered around a table to form a command center to deal with immediate needs and to anticipate problems.

Other issues were revealed when FBI agents went to Allegheny General to interview victims, which made the medical staff deal with balancing patient needs with law enforcement demands.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
A "distraught" Barb Gruber of Allison Park joins the evacuation from PNC Park after an explosion and a smoke cloud.
Click photo for larger image.

The "walking wounded" were put in a roomy physical therapy area. Doctors and nurses treated volunteers based on symptoms and medical findings listed on the cards that hung around their necks.

Six of Allegheny General's 49 patients were admitted. More than 200 other "victims" were sent to UPMC Presbyterian, Mercy Hospital, West Penn Hospital and Children's Hospital.

At around 3:30, Allegheny General informed the county operations center that the emergency department had been contaminated and could not take any more patients, said spokesman Dan Laurent.

That event, to which EMS would have to adapt, was planned as part of the larger scenario. Soon, the other city hospitals also ended their part of the drill.

For their trouble, the 470 volunteer "victims" will collect two tickets to a Pirates game. They also received first-aid kits and models of PNC Park. Plenty said they would have been part of the spectacle even without such inducements.

"What else is there to do in Pittsburgh on a Saturday?" said Joe Frabell of Washington, Pa.

Such relaxed attitudes made it difficult to assess whether the evacuation and decontamination work hit any snags. A written report on the drill's successes and failures is to be compiled in about a month by the public and private entities that participated.

Michael Forgy, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, said government agencies spent more than a year preparing for yesterday's exercise. A special allocation of $120,000 in public money from his agency was appropriated for the drill. The remaining $500,000 or so came from Homeland Security money allocated this year to Southwestern Pennsylvania. In all, about $11 million was budgeted for the region in 2004-05 to buy equipment and pay for training to counter terrorists.

Much of the money for yesterday's drill went for overtime pay. For instance, Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly said, about 100 of his officers collected time and half for working the disaster drill.

Imperfections aside, volunteers said they were hungry for information about what to do in time of trouble.

Bill and Winnie Welsh of Shaler went so far as to subject themselves and their 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, to the explosions and decontamination exercise.

"There's a first time for everything," Bill Welsh said. "We thought we should see what this was all about."


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