Preparing for disaster

By William K. Alcorn

YOUNGSTOWN — “You should try cutting off someone’s clothing while wearing three pairs of gloves,” said Lavern Carrera, one of a contingent of area hospital and public-health emergency responders who underwent intense training at the Homeland Security Training Center for Disaster Preparedness.

The culmination of the recent three-day training was a chemical-spill exercise that required triage and decontamination of the victims, played by 200-pound mannequins with heartbeats and pulses that vary and pupils that dilate.

Cutting off the clothing is done quickly and first because getting rid of the clothing gets rid of 60 percent to 80 percent of the contamination, said Carrera, vice president of support services at Northside Medical Center.

Learning to don the decontamination suit and then work in it in the intense heat in Anniston, Ala., where the training center is located, is part of the value of the exercise, participants said.

“It is one thing to have educational material and watch film about what to do. But there is no better way to duplicate the real experience than to put on the garb and decontaminate and stabilize patients,” said Dr. John Venglarcik III, medical director of the Mahoning County District Board of Health, who also attended the training.

The Homeland Security Department’s Hospital Emergency Response Training for Mass Casualty Incidents and other training sessions are paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The only costs to the hospitals are the salaries of their employees participating and temporary help if replacements are needed.

“I think every penny spent on the facility and the training is worthwhile. I feel safer having been down there. The fact that we haven’t had another terrorist attack is perhaps not an accident. These people are on top if it. This is government doing what it is supposed to,” Dr. Venglarcik said.

Plus, he said, the training was “educationally as well-done as anything I’ve ever come into contact with, and I’ve taught all over the world. They tell you what they are going to teach you, using slides and printed material, and give you time to ask questions. Then they have you do it [the exercise] in real time, providing immediate hands-on reinforcement of the information. That is the best way to learn.”

Some of the local trainees, such as Patricia Melnykovich, director of employee health and wellness and safety officer for Humility of Mary Health Partners, are supervisors and likely would be in command centers in a disaster.

“Because we went through the training, we have a much better understanding of what the nurses and doctors and others go through. It gives me confidence that we would know how to assist our staff in a disaster situation, from both an employee and patient perspective,” she said

“It also gives us the knowledge to pass the training along to other employees when we return to our hospitals,” said Melnykovich, who was an emergency nurse for many years.

“What I brought back was a lot of confidence because I learned we were on the right track for disaster preparedness. We knew what we had to do but never had a chance to put it into practice at that level,” said Tammy Howard, stroke coordinator and emergency department educator at Northside Medical Center.

“The trainers threw things at us to try and rattle us, and it was good to know we were up to dealing with them in the emergency- treatment area. My first patient was a mannequin with a tree limb sticking out of its chest. Then somebody set off a simulated bomb in the emergency-treatment area. They really stretched us,” she said.

Trainees also had to deal with the media, distraught patients and family members, played by human actors, all while trying to triage, decontaminate and provide medical care for the mannequin patients, they said.

The other major benefit of the training is a better working relationship between health-care competitors Forum Health and Humility of Mary Health Partners.

There is a memorandum of understanding that the two institutions would work together for the good of the community in case of an emergency, said Melnykovich.

“It was really good because we all got down in the dirt together. We built a higher level of trust between the two institutions [Forum Health and HMHP]. It taught us how to better communicate with each other and the public,” said Nancy Guiler, clinical nurse manager of the Northside emergency room.

“We are competitors, but when the community needs us, we are side by side,” Carrera said.