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Emergency response tested

The words echoed throughout the park, “We have taken direct action against people in the park. Today will be the last time they eat here, or eat at all.”

Shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday, Island County’s 911 center received a threat that an extremist environmental group had poisoned picnickers at a park.

Within 10 minutes, fire and police crews had swarmed upon Ft. Nugent Park, only to find 26 people staggering about.

The scenario was a drill meant to tax the county’s emergency response systems. With crews from North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, Oak Harbor Fire, Whidbey General Hospital, Oak Harbor Police and Naval Hospital Oak Harbor responding, it did just that.

“We wanted to stress the system,” said Mike Simms, Island County’s emergency services manager. “We could probably bring in enough ambulances to haul everybody off, but that wouldn’t accomplish the goal.”

The goal was to look at how each discipline, fire, police and medical, accomplished critical tasks such as triage or risk assessment.

“We did exactly what the intent was,” said Dr. Paul Zaveruha, Whidbey General Hospital’s emergency medicine manager. “The fire department did a really great job of putting into effect their standard disaster response.”

During the drill, the patients, who were volunteers from an Oak Harbor High School sports medicine class, began to self-diagnose. The volunteers were originally given note cards describing their symptoms, but quickly found it more entertaining to create their own problems.

For North Whidbey Firefighter Ed Klaszky, the drill was quite literally a trial by fire. Klaszky graduated from the district’s training academy the night before.

“It was interesting and a chance to learn a lot,” he said, sweat still pouring from his face. “This made a lot of stuff click.”

Klaszky said that the way the different organizations were able to work together with ease and precision impressed him. Indeed, the finely tuned instrument of the response showed few flaws.

“Communications are always a problem,” Zaveruha told firefighters after the exercise. “But it works, and that’s why we exercise.”

Crews herded the sick people through a funnel of orange cones and caution tape to a triage area. Triage allows medical personnel to assess who the sickest patients are. “Healthy,” “delayed” and “immediate” areas bustled with activity. Luckily, nobody needed to be carted to the morgue tarp, which sat quietly evil in the corner.

A standardized response system, called the Incident Command System, allows responders from different agencies to use standardized language and techniques to respond to large-scale disasters.

Funds from Department of Homeland Security were used to pay crews to participate in the training. Aside from the spontaneously deteriorating health of the volunteers, other complications occurred. One of the volunteers became faint and started feeling nauseous.

Laying on a plastic tarp for 2 hours in 80-degree weather proved too much for the student. Her mother came to pick her up and take her home. Doctors on the scene said she would be fine.

For the rookie firefighter Klaszky, the experience was an eye opener.

“I was amazed at how in-depth the medical can go out in the field,” he said.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com.

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