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Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Disaster drill tests emergency response plans

students EMTs participate in disaster drill

DISASTER PLANNING: Students in the River Campus group Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) and first responders from the city, county, and the University worked together to test procedures during a mock disaster drill at the Interfaith Chapel.


The call came in to 911 around noon. The Interfaith Chapel on the River Campus collapsed with about 50 people still inside. The Rochester Fire Department, Rural Metro Ambulance, Rochester Police, and University first responders quickly arrived on the scene.

Victims were wedged under tables and chairs and trapped in the stairwells. Voices cried out from the dark room, “Help me. I can’t breathe.” Coughing and moaning filled the room. Medical responders quickly began surveying the situation and making plans on how to get victims out safely.

This disaster, though, was only a drill. In fact, it was the largest drill of its kind conducted on the River Campus. Mark Cavanaugh, director of environmental health and safety, coordinated the Emergency Operations Center during the test. “We’ve always wanted to do a drill of this scope. We have held tabletop drills in the past, but we were ready to elevate our game. It was time to elevate it,” says Cavanaugh.

Julie Shin ’09, a health and society and English major, was in the building during the simulated collapse. According to her injury card, a synopsis of signs and symptoms given to each volunteer, Shin was to simulate asthma symptoms triggered by smoke inhaled from a nearby fire.

“I started wheezing and coughing and then the firefighters came and strapped me in,” she says.

The mass casualty incident drill was a way to test the University’s ability to notify and assemble the Emergency Operations Center, develop relationships with both internal resources and external first responders, and provide simulated training experience for the River Campus Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT)—all the elements involved in the University’s Emergency Preparedness Plan.

Cavanaugh says in the nine years he has been on the job the University has never practiced its emergency services from top to bottom, while fostering the relationship between local services and the University’s first responders. In the past, most plans were discussed across a table by a core group who manage communication between the University and outside agencies. For this drill, the decision was made to simulate a building collapse with multiple casualties as a way to test response in the field as well as response from the Emergency Operations Center, where people from across the University respond to incoming calls and monitor the situation in the field.

“It is a way to make sure we are communicating and that we can work together as a single unit. It’s what we call an integrated command post,” Cavanaugh says.

University students, who are EMTs and members of MERT, test their ability to triage, conduct low-angle rescues, provide basic life support, extricate victims, and communicate with other services as well as those in the operations center in the midst of the emergency.

Cavanaugh says early reports suggest the emergency response in the field worked well and that logistical response also was effective. The drill, he notes, did reveal potential challenges such as managing incoming calls from concerned parents and from local media and determining how information will be shared and through what mechanisms. He and others involved will be working through those and similar issues in the months ahead, looking at ways to modify the emergency response plan so that it can be used effectively during a crisis.

There is another added benefit, according to Cavanaugh: “It heightens awareness, and people realize they need to be prepared.”

Erica Wellington ’09 volunteered as a victim in the disaster drill. Trapped in a stairwell, she was one of the victims who would not make it out “alive.”

“I think it’s definitely a really great experience,” says Wellington, a new member of MERT. “If anything ever happened like this, it’s good to know we could use what we learned during the drill.”

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