In disaster, decorum dominates

Mock dirty bombing at UT allows emergency workers to practice new tactics for a new era

By Patrick Beach
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
October 18, 2002, Friday

"Can you walk?"

The firefighter with the mask on his face and the oxygen tank asked me that, speaking loudly and with exaggerated enunciation.

I could, I told him. I'd been hit in the face with something, and it felt like my nose was broken. A gash in my chin dripped blood onto my shirt. But, all things considered, I'd come through the dirty bombing of the University of Texas campus pretty well.

That was, in large part, because it was just pretend.

UT hosted a mass-casualty disaster drill Thursday. The scenario was something that most of the world hadn't heard of before Sept. 11 -- the detonation of a conventional explosive, in this case the equivalent of 20 pounds of TNT, that carries radioactive material and contaminates a wide area.

Although emergency responders construct such mock scenarios regularly to keep sharp, Thursday's exercise on the UT campus was the first vividly inspired by the unpleasant new realities in which we live.

More than 200 volunteers signed up to be victims for a day. Not to be trite, because the purpose of the exercise was deadly serious, but it was kind of cool. Many of the victims, lots of them from UT, Austin Community College and area high schools, got made up with fake injuries at Myers Stadium in the morning -- and they got out of school for the day. Compound fractures and head wounds looked particularly gnarly.

Most of the victims were assigned to area hospitals, 11 in all, to which they'd be transported for simulation of a particularly lively "ER" episode. The rest of us, 20 or so, were going to be treated at the scene and possibly transported.

Then, because the city bus that was going to take us from the stadium to the scene at 23rd Street and Speedway was stuck in a tight parking spot, we delayed the start of a disaster starring us. Scheduled to commence at 1 p.m., things didn't get going until a few minutes after.

Once we bloody troops were in place around the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Building, organizers set off a smoke bomb (no explosion -- although occupants of nearby buildings had been advised of the drill beforehand, a big boom would have been a bit too real) and the emergency vehicles rolled in. It felt like forever. It was probably five minutes.

Of course, this being UT, there was a charming little protest. "Some disasters are preventable," read one sign. "War is one of them," said another. "Where was UTPD last year when 500,000 Iraqis were murdered?" one protester yelled. Or maybe it was 50,000. It was impossible to take notes and stay in character. Anyway, the guy didn't make clear the UT Police Department's obligation to protect and serve the people of Iraq. But there you go.

Sarah Hill, a high school senior from Cedar Park, was mock-thrown off her bike and mock-didn't know her name. She also mock-didn't know how many fingers I was holding in front of her face. Mary Pat Smith, a nurse, mock-touched a downed power line and briefly lost consciousness. A mock firefighter, a dummy in firefighter gear, came in contact with the same line. They were doing CPR on him. It didn't look too good.

Eventually an armada of emergency vehicles descended: firefighters, the Austin Police Department's bomb squad, Austin-Travis County EMS and Spec-Ops, the FBI, investigators from the UTPD (derelict in their duty to the people of Iraq and as such out in force) and mysterious guys in hazard suits and sidearms. The wounded were eyeballed and led away from the contaminated area (the size of which was gauged by using computer models fed data about the estimated size of the blast and the wind speed and direction). Then we were interviewed about our injuries and triaged. If a responder checked the red box on our triage tag, it meant immediate care. Green meant minimal injury. Black meant "expectant," a euphemism for dead or dying.

Away from the carnage on the street, a fire alarm went off in the building out of which the exercise was being run.

Other unexpected moments were of our own design.

A student with severe internal injuries was misdiagnosed. Two guys ran back into the contaminated area after being "deconned." I walked back toward the dirty blast site to "get my bike." A firefighter bought my excuse and let me past. An officer chased after me and gently turned me around.

"Nice catch, Chris," one of his colleagues said. I also repeatedly asked why some of the responders were wearing hazardous materials suits and got vague answers plainly aimed at Not Alarming The Victim. I was treated quite well, in other words, despite my efforts to disrupt and annoy.

The media jackals -- played by UT journalism students -- came out in force and got in our faces to interview us. True to life, they politely got tossed out.

The police line to hold the press back was excessively porous, said Steve Collier, the city's director of the Office of Emergency Management, and perimeter control proved something that needs work. These are the things that organizers discuss and learn from in post-exercise debriefings. Of course, in a real disaster, a lot more police would be on hand. Organizers can't throw too much manpower at a little play-acting and leave the city exposed to real mayhem, a daily occurrence not nearly as predictable as a drill.

Such exercises, conducted at least once a year, expose areas of weakness and have led to changes in disaster planning. The city's emergency plan calls for a lot of time spent prepping, but that time is critical when the numbers of wounded are large. Lindy McGinniss of emergency management said they were trying out a more streamlined process Thursday.

There were plenty of glitches, but at the end of the day Collier generally seemed pleased. Communication between different agencies held up, and order emerged from catastrophe.

It was real enough. And everybody walked away.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603