- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

D.C. ambulances took nearly an hour to respond to a "mass casualty" emergency call yesterday after an industrial rope that children were using to play tug of war caused a mysterious rash.
Five adults and 24 children were transported from the World Charter School in the 800 block of Third Street NE to hospitals, mostly for itching on their hands, face and arms, D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said.
None of the injuries was thought to be serious, but children were sent home from school early. The Capital Children's Museum, part of the complex where the school is located, also was evacuated.
Mr. Etter said about 40 people were treated and that the heat and the power of suggestion might have contributed to the children's symptoms.
The emergency call, which came in at 12:26 p.m., indicated several children were having allergic reactions to face paint the class had been using. D.C. firefighters were the first on the scene, and two ambulances arrived within 15 minutes.
Mr. Etter said emergency workers set up an assembly line to rinse the paint off the children, but the symptoms weren't relieved.
The two ambulances transported the four most severely affected children. The commander on the scene then called for additional units but was told by dispatchers that none was available.
The department, which long has suffered from a shortage of ambulance personnel, often uses firefighters trained as emergency medical technicians to work overtime shifts aboard medical units. When those positions can't be filled, ambulances are put out of service.
Mr. Etter said the department issued a "mass casualty" call, mobilizing six ambulances the department kept in reserve throughout the city to deal with large-scale emergencies.
Four units responded to the school but took 45 minutes to arrive.
"They put these extra six ambulances, these reserve ambulances, in motion," Mr. Etter said. "It could take a long time for them to get ready to go."
Emergency workers eventually spotted a frayed rope with which the schoolchildren had been playing and concluded that shards of fiber on the rope had been released into the air and caused the rashes.
Mr. Etter said the delayed responses were in no way indicative of the way the department might have responded in a more serious mass-casualty incident, like a terrorist attack.
"You don't respond to every situation in the same way," Mr. Etter said. "You get into a situation where you have trained professionals who are evaluating priorities."
He said mutual aid as well as federal aid could be enacted in more serious cases, and "someone complaining of a headache might have to wait."


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