- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 21, 2004

Officials participating in the nation’s first collaboration of federal, military and private emergency preparedness learned yesterday that the Washington area is better prepared to respond to a disaster, but that there is still room for improvement.

Crews from the National Naval Medical Center, Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Montgomery County Emergency Management Services put their skills to the test yesterday as members from each agency had to work as a team in a coordinated mass-casualty drill.

“We came out of it feeling really well,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, public affairs officer for the Bethesda Naval Hospital. “We had a lot of good take-aways we can implement and refine next time so we can build a better model for everyone.”

Event organizers said yesterday’s exercise, which lasted about four hours, is a step forward for the federal, military and private sectors in responding to the aftermath of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. It was the first of four such exercises planned by the three sectors.

“Coordinated collaboration is essential to an effective regional response to a national emergency,” said Dr. John I. Gallin, director of the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. “My hope is that this partnership becomes a template for the rest of the country.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen Jr., Maryland Democrat who represents the district where the hospitals are located, said the staged event was needed to test how the partnership would work.

“While it’s easy to talk about cooperation, execution is obviously more challenging,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

The mock attack occurred about 11:30 a.m., when a green Chevrolet sedan carrying a ra dioactive bomb exploded in the middle of a field near the naval hospital where about 90 people stood.

As smoke billowed from the car, 10 persons wearing red-stained T-shirts lay on the ground playing dead, along with dozens more victims suffering from radiation burns and poisoning. Some ran around the field screaming for help or looking for loved ones.

Soon after, dozens of firefighters, emergency medical service technicians and hazardous materials crew members, wearing gas masks, arrived to assess the damage. Emergency technicians treated some victims at an on-site decontamination tent and sent others to participating hospitals.

More than 30 emergency response vehicles from the naval hospital, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and NIH hazardous materials response team transported the victims to the medical facilities.

Thirty-five victims were taken to Suburban, 30 were taken to the naval hospital’s emergency room and its outdoor decontamination facility, and 10 were pronounced dead at the scene. In addition, NIH accepted 10 of Suburban’s patients to make room for the disaster victims in its trauma center.

Medical staff performed triage on arriving patients to determine which victims needed the most urgent attention. Fifty drill evaluators accompanied EMS teams to assess the level of care for each victim.

“We evaluate their response to what [the victim] presents to make sure they’re doing the proper intervention,” said Lt. Cmdr. Carla Thorson, one of the drill evaluators. “Once they’re in the hospital, we’re tracking the patients and seeing how the system in the hospital can be effectively improved.”

Also yesterday, military and medical personnel participated in the region’s first disaster conference at the naval hospital, where participants learned basic life support, infection control and other topics.

“Are we going to be ready [for the next attack]? Probably not,” said Brian Gragnolati, president and chief executive officer of Suburban Hospital. “But are we going to be better prepared? Absolutely.”

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