By GRACE GADDY
Local law enforcement and emergency agencies conducted a mock disaster drill Thursday with Palestine Regional Medical Center to test response procedures and overall preparedness in the event of a disaster.
Participating agencies included the Emergency Management Group — which includes directors, administration and staff of PRMC — Emergency Medical Services, the City of Palestine, the Anderson County Sheriff's Department, Palestine police and fire departments, the University of Texas at Tyler Palestine and Trinity Mother Frances Hospital's Flight For Life.
Schelby Wells, emergency management coordinator, said PRMC is required to hold drills of this kind three times per year.
“There are numerous mandates that emergency management must work under,” Wells said. “Through exercises, it improves the city's and county's response to disasters or emergencies.”
After 9/11, Wells said the federal government increased the number of drills that emergency responders must observe — to be ready in any situation.
“Communication is the key,” Wells said. “And there has to be numerous layers of communications available. In the event we lose one, we have to have backup communications, which we have achieved in our jurisdiction.”
Thursday's “disaster” involved a tornado that blazed through the county around 9 a.m. at approximately 30 mph, knocking out power lines, structures and buildings. The left wing of the PRMC West Campus building was “directly hit,” leaving 18 people injured and two deceased, according to the official scenario of the day's events.
The tornado also took out West Campus communications and utilities and damaged the psychiatric unit, “which creates another entire issue in being that you have to get the patients that are unharmed to a location where they can be secured,” Wells noted.
After the tornado “hit,” agencies flew into action with notification and response procedures. Palestine Police Chief Robert Herbert set up an incident command post, where communications were established between local law enforcement and rescue operations.
“We have to make sure we have the appropriate man power available,” Herbert said, “that we have the necessary resources and phone numbers to be able to contact officers if they’re off work, to make sure we've got all our equipment available and ready to go.”
Wells said that in the event a disaster damaged communication towers, responders would revert to cell phones.
Following the “start” of the disaster, law enforcement agencies conducted search and rescue operations throughout the damaged left wing — in 32 minutes, Wells said — which was quicker than estimated. Role-playing “injured” patients were then transferred to PRMC's East Campus by medical staff, with some being care-flighted, as real-life operations could require.
At the East Campus, responders faced dealing with a surge of patients at once, “aside from dealing with psych patients that had to be transported from the West Wing to a secured area at the East Campus,” Wells added.
Arrangements were made to transport 15 patients to Longview with a law enforcement escort.
Meanwhile, the city was knee-deep in communication procedures. In the event of an actual disaster, the mayor would sign a disaster declaration, command posts and emergency management operations would be established, and a communications plan for emergency personnel would go into effect.
Keith Vintilla, director of environmental services, security and emergency management, coordinated the mock disaster. He said the drill enables the community to better prepare for a real disaster.
“Because this was a community effort, it wasn't just a hospital-focused event, we had response from multiple agencies including fire, sheriff, police, EMS, Mother Frances Flight For Life, (and media),” he said.
“The purpose of today was to test our capability and response to a disaster as a community... and today allowed us to see some of the things we need to work on in order to strive to get better at that very thing.”
Karen Adams, spokesperson for East Texas Medical Center in Jacksonville, observed the drill. She said apart from a few communication glitches, she thought the drill went well and personnel acted appropriately.
Vintilla called the experience a “learning curve” and said it's all about getting better.
“The better that we can respond, the more lives we'll save,” he said. “That's what this is for, and I think today was very successful in achieving that goal in trying to improve.”