A two-day HAZMAT exercise involving multiple entities came to a conclusion Tuesday.
The exercise simulated a chemical spill at NCFI Polyurethanes in Mount Airy, and included every aspect from emergency management’s initial response to the situation to the treatment of patients at Northern Hospital of Surry County.
Surry County EMS Assistant Director Myron Waddell said the drill began Monday with a tabletop exercise. Agencies such as EMS, state and county emergency management officials, representatives from Northern Hospital and HAZMAT crews met and verbally went through a scenario.
Waddell said that portion of the exercise allowed officials to work through an ever-changing scenario in a “non-threatening” way which required no moving parts.
The tabletop discussion was followed by a functional exercise Monday afternoon, according to Waddell. HAZMAT crews responded to a rail car spill at the business’s location. Authorities rendered immediate aid, transported patients and worked to mitigate any further exposure to the chemical.
Waddell said the drill was successful, with all entities leaving a little more prepared than they had arrived.
On Tuesday the hospital performed its portion of the exercise. Students from Mount Airy High School’s Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) program served as patients who had been exposed to the chemical.
Robin Hodgin, hospital vice president of patient services, said in the drill scenario that the 11 students had been exposed to tolulene, one of about 50 chemicals used at the foam production company.
The chemical can cause dizziness, tiredness, weakness and nausea for those exposed minimally. It can be deadly to those exposed for long periods of time. It has a scent much like paint-thinner, and symptoms can mimic those produced by inhaling paint thinner.
The “victims” also complained of rashes associated with their exposure to the chemical.
As part of the exercise, students showed up at the hospital and were immediately sent outside, so as not to contaminate anybody else. In a real-world situation hospital officials noted keeping somebody exposed to tolulene in an enclosed area would lead to the person breathing in more fumes.
Three of the “victims” had come in direct contact with the chemical. They were led to a contamination room, where hospital staff, dressed in HAZMAT suits, cleaned the chemical off the girls.
Other students, who did not come in direct contact with the chemical, were monitored and released, including an OB-Gyn consult for a girl who was hypothetically pregnant.
Like Waddell, Hodgin said the exercise was successful, and it’s also something which needs to be done.
“We have to perform exercises like these for accreditation purposes,” explained Hodgin. “However, it’s also just the right thing to do to ensure preparedness should something like this actually occur.”
Hodgin and E.R. Director Karen Hagan said the hospital tries to run some sort of exercise on at least a quarterly basis.
Hagan said they always try to coordinate such exercises with EMS and other officials. The hospital also usually incorporates the schools into its exercises.
In a debriefing, hospital staff identified some areas in which they could benefit from more training, such as the use and wearing of the HAZMAT suits.
However, Hodgin indicated the drill went well, and it will help to ensure her staff is well prepared to deal with the event should it happen in real life.
Waddell said preparedness is key to ensuring Surry County residents will be well taken care of in the event of a catastrophe.
“We learned a lot during this exercise,” said Waddell. “Exercises like this one help to prevent something catastrophic there (at NCFI) or elsewhere and mitigate the effects to residents should something occur.”
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.