SD First Responders Practice Multiagency Response During Mock Tornado Exercise

By Neil Chaney, Rosenbauer America

On July 17th , the town of Lyons, South Dakota became the target of a large scale mock tornado. Thirteen fire departments, two ambulance districts, the Minnehaha County Emergency Management dive team and rescue squad, the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office and Metro Communications comprised the roughly 140 firefighters, EMTs, and law enforcement who participated in a two and a half hour exercise 11 miles northwest of Sioux Falls. The scenario came from observations that Harold Boer, Fire Chief of the Lyons Volunteer Fire Department, had made while watching and thinking about the response to the Moore, Oklahoma tornado.

“Every year we have a county-wide drill which focuses on one topic,” Boer said. “Watching media coverage of the Moore tornado provided the idea of a multi-agency, multiscene drill that would match all the types of scenarios rescuers faced in Moore.”

Boer presented his plan at the Minnehaha County Fire Chief’s Association meeting where the association’s president and Crooks Fire Chief, Mike Harstad, along with Minnehaha County Emergency Manager, Lynn Deyoung, endorsed the exercise.

“We need to evaluate our readiness to effectively respond to a major weather event similar to Moore’s EF5 tornado. Not since 'Tornado Tuesday' in 2003 has the region experienced that kind of demand on our first responders,” said Harstad. “It is essential that we get together to become familiar with volunteers from the surrounding departments, so that we understand each other better which will lead to a more cohesive response to a tragedy of this level.”

Boer and Harstad went to work planning the reality-based drill by going back to news reports from the Oklahoma tragedy and looking at specific accounts. In addition to the collapsed buildings, Boer and Harstad recalled the situation on Interstate 40 in which vehicles that were stuck in traffic were thrown by the tornado, and the search and rescue operations that were being conducted in neighborhoods. Setting up a triage system with medical transport would allow the ambulance services to work with EMTs from outside of their service areas.

“Triage of injured victims is immensely important,” Harstad says. “Our most important role in these situations is evaluating, treating and transporting. These are skills you cannot practice enough.”

Lyons recently became home to Central Farmers’ Cooperative/ FREMAR, LLC a joint venture with ADM, grain handling facility. FREMAR, LLC’s new mammoth grain handling facility has the capacity to store 6 million bushels of grain. The facility is unique from other commercial properties in the area due to its underground tunnel system. “We decided to ask FREMAR, LLC if they would allow us access to their property to train,” according to Boer. “They really, really stepped up. They not only granted access to the tunnel for our technical rescue, FREMAR, LLC shut down their entire operation for the whole day.” FREMAR, LLC’s 135 acres became “ground zero” for the drill.

“The planning went from zero to 100 in short order.” Harstad said. “We gained a single site which could handle all of the scenarios.”
The technical rescue component featured a victims located in a tunnels below the grain storage silos. Sioux Falls Fire and Rescue USAR team took crews below the elevator into crawl spaces to demonstrate the basics of confined space rescue.

A medical triage area was established just south of the main grain storage bins where all the individual victims were brought by search and rescue teams. Each victim arrived with a triage tag indicating his or her condition. Ambulances from Dell Rapids and Humboldt transported the victims to simulated medical centers. EMTs from multiple fire departments were teamed up to do the ground search. Participants in the drill exercise received three EMT hours for patient assessment.

One drill station included vehicle extrication to simulate a vehicle that was thrown during a tornado. The vehicle training was done under the coordination of the Colton and Hartford Fire Departments.

A tornado can cause structure fires which was the focus of the simulated structure fire. Firefighters ran two monitor lines along with the support of a water shuttle comprised of tanker apparatus from departments.

Crooks Fire Department led one of the more unique stations during the exercise with the assistance of the Wheat Growers Association. A grain entrapment training simulator came in from Huron to teach rescuers the proper technique using a grain tube. Called the “Res-Q-Tube” the four-paneled tube allows rescuers to surround the victim with panels preventing additional grain from compacting on them. Trainers demonstrated the placement of the panels, and once those were in place, rescuers scooped or vacuumed grain from around the victim until the steps inside the tube were far enough down the patient could climb (if able) out of the tube. A total of 92 firefighters received this training.

The FREMAR, LLC site has ground water ponds scattered around the property, which made including the Minnehaha County Dive team a possibility. Rosenbauer America, which is located across the street in Lyons, provided a cab shell that was submerged in 20 feet of water with a rescue mannequin inside to simulate a drowning victim.

Boer acted as the incident commander from the Unified Regional Command Post on-scene. He was assisted by Metro Communications in Sioux Falls triggering the events in a coordinated manner.

“The toughest part of any call is communications,” Boer said. “It is the first response component to breakdown.” Dispatches were sent to department members via the traditional method of paging them to the drill site. Once Boer triggered the tornado strike call, Metro Communications elevated the alarms and continued to dispatch additional resources until the scenario was complete.

One of Boer’s goals was to simulate real response times on-scene even though some units had arrived earlier in the afternoon. A “pre-response” staging area up the driveway was established and crews were instructed to acknowledge the page, however, delay their arrival by five to seven minutes.

“Unless an accident happens outside your station, you’re not going to be on-scene in three minutes,” Boer added. “We purposely asked departments to stay where they were so that the sense of anticipation was there even during the drill.”

After the second alarm, Boer, appointed a Public Information Officer (PIO) to facilitate information to the news media. Local media outlets had been invited via media releases distributed two weeks prior to the drill date by e-mail. Renner Fire Chief, Mike Schmitz, served as the drill’s PIO guiding the media from station to station and providing them with information relating to the objectives of each drill. Schmitz gave on-camera interviews and accompanied them into the command post to interview Boer.

Baltic Fire Chief and Sioux Falls Fire Rescue Captain, Mike Koopman, was appointed by Boer to act as the staging officer ensuring participants who completed tasks at a station reported to the drill rehab station operated by Hartford Fire Department and Emergency Management. Temperatures were in the high 80’s during the event with 60% humidity as expected in eastern South Dakota in mid-July. Once participants were cleared through rehab, they reported to Koopman for new assignments.

According to Deyoung, events like these serve a very important role “Most of these responders work their normal jobs during the day; they don’t have a whole lot of free time to travel to schools that drill large scale responses. We have to make sure they get the most relevant training while they are away from their families. Lessons learned from this training event will be used to improve first responder response on every day emergencies and natural or man-made disasters.”

The event concluded with supper provided by Minnehaha County Emergency Management and hosted by Rosenbauer America. No injuries occurred during the training.

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