By Paul Rebar
An orderly leans over a newly-arrived casualty, dressing the fake bone sticking out of her leg.
The casualty is wheeled towards the operating bay, where she hops off the stretcher. An operating mannequin with an identical injury takes her place and is hurried through the doors.
In another room a doctor examines a line of patients sitting with chemical burn marks painted on their faces.
The scenario: a tanker truck full of pesticides has collided with a bus in a busy downtown intersection. The result? Seventy-six casualties. Capital Heath and the IWK Health Centre must efficiently handle the “Code Orange” level disaster.
“The goal with this kind of thing is not to get it perfect but to meet the challenge,” says Capital Health Exercise Director Dr. Carl Jarvis. “It gives us an idea what our capability is.”
As a result of the simulation Capital Health now has decontamination facilities that could handle an actual disaster of this scale. Jarvis compares this exercise to Halifax hosting the Canada Winter Games in 2010, which left the city with the Halifax Oval.
“We agreed to do this exercise eight months ago, so the whole previous six months have been leading up to this.”
Jarvis is a lot more confident after the exercise, although he says recruiting and training more people for the “decon” procedure is a top priority. Over the course of the simulation the nine specialists at Capital Health had no one to relieve them, which meant they had to work nonstop for three hours in sweltering hazmat suits.
IWK ran into a similar problem. They had six specialists and only seven suits to work with. This means only one specialist could be relieved at a time in a real disaster; the suits need to be decontaminated before they can be worn again.
“Let’s say we respond to an event that lasts for seven hours, we don’t have the capacity to deal with that,” says IWK Exercise Director Dr. Vered Gazit.
Despite the shortage of specialists and equipment, Gazit says that this time last year IWK couldn’t have responded to a single decon patient. The exercise also streamlined the triage process from taking a few minutes per patient to only about 30 seconds.
Volunteer Carol Hughes, 60, played three scenarios over the course of the exercise at Capital Health. First she was a patient with minor injuries, then a family member whose husband had been a casualty, and finally a passerby who had pulled someone from the wreckage and started having breathing problems.
“I thought in the ER they really seemed to know what they were doing,” says Hughes, whose son, a member of the Canadian Forces, persuaded her to take part in the mock disaster.
Hughes says the process would still be hard for the casualties’ family members, since they would have no way of knowing if they were dead or alive.
“There’s nothing [the emergency personnel] can do about that when [there are] so many casualties.”
In all, 57 planners, 45 health care providers, 10 Canadian Forces personnel (who took the opportunity to train with their civilian counterparts) and 112 community volunteers participated in the event. This made it one of the largest medical exercises ever attempted in Nova Scotia.