How do you respond to an emergency during an already life-threatening situation?
Thursday afternoon, on the third floor of Wise Regional Health System (WRHS) in Decatur, doctors and nurses were operating on a patient in a sterile operating room. An employee noticed an autoclave sparking in what appeared to be a small electrical fire.
Moments later a sudden explosion rocked the third floor, blasting a huge hole in the operating room, seriously injuring doctors, nurses and even the patient who was undergoing surgery.
From the third floor window, Decatur Fire Hall could be seen opening its bay doors on a faraway hill. Firefighters and other first responders would arrive in minutes, but every second is crucial, and hospital staff has to know how to take care of its patients and its employees immediately.
“We do these types of drills so we are already prepared and trained in case something like this does happen,” said Shannon Puphal, WRHS spokesperson. “We do this to check our processes.”
The staff went to great lengths to make the mock explosion as realistic as possible. The faces and arms of nurses and doctors in the operating room were marred with makeup resembling horrid burns. Like clockwork, additional staff rushed in. A table equipped with everything needed to keep the surgical patient alive is rolled in. Other staff quickly takes stock of those injured and dying. Within 20 minutes, all seven injured parties have been transported to the unaffected end of the hospital and have been seen by a doctor.
“You have to do these to test your resources and response,” said Wise County Deputy Fire Marshal J.C. Travis, who was on hand observing tactics and responses.
There are seven operating rooms at the hospital, not to mention many other patients and staff scattered throughout the complex. Disasters can and do strike medical facilities.
The WRHS Fit-n-Wise complex in Decatur was devastated by a tornado in October of 2001.
Wise County Fire Marshal Chuck Beard has responded to three hospital fires during his career. He looked on as a team of Decatur firefighters stormed up a flight of stairs to respond to the mock explosion.
“The biggest difference between these scenarios and if a structure fire really happened is the amount of chaos,” Beard said. “But these help identify any types of failing there may be. Not just with the fire department, but with the hospital staff as well, from the top down.”
Puphal said the hospital staff did identify a couple of areas to help improve response to a real disaster. The hospital plans to work with Decatur Fire Department to identify stairwells by numbers rather than by direction such as east, west, etc.
Staff also discovered that certain patient evacuation sleds are easier to maneuver down stairwells than others, prompting the hospital to increase the number of those sleds on upper floors.
“Overall, the department directors felt the drill went well,” Puphal said. “Protocols were followed, and staff and were knowledgeable on hospital policies and procedures.”
A more comprehensive drill involving more county agencies is likely planned for the future.