DEMOREST – Emergency personnel and Piedmont College nursing students got a glimpse Wednesday of how it would look if special effects for a play went wrong and started a fire in a crowded theater.
Lights flashed and sirens wailed as personnel from Demorest Fire Department, Habersham County Emergency Services, Cornelia Fire Department, Demorest Police Department, Piedmont College Police Department, Habersham Emergency Management Agency and others responded to the annual disaster drill at Swanson Hall.
For the first time, the event prompting this year’s response was held inside a building on campus. Traditionally, the scenarios have taken place in outdoor venues around campus.
“Basically, what we had is a simulated fire in the Swanson Center,” said Piedmont College Police Chief Jim Andrews. “Shortly after the fire was reported, we had an explosion also.”
Habersham County E-9-1-1 dispatchers provided basic information upon dispatch.
“Callers advising there was a fire inside the building during a play,” a dispatcher said in the radio page. “Stated there are victims inside and outside still. Some people were trampled.”
Fred Bucher, the college’s new facilities maintenance and safety director, was one of those who talked with student reporters after the conclusion of Wednesday’s operation.
“Props and stuff are made of combustible materials,” Bucher said. “A fire could start here. It’s not unusual for a fire to happen in a place like this. You heard the noise that they made when they first started? They use a lot of those kinds of pyrotechnics in their work that they do and some of the presentations that they make. In Professor [William] Gabelhausen, we have somebody who is one of the few people in Georgia trained to operate a theater with that kind of equipment, which is a real good thing for the college.”
In addition to agencies with personnel on the ground assisting at the exercise, Habersham Medical Center and the Habersham County E-9-1-1 Center provided support and were included throughout the scenario.
Habersham Emergency Management Agency/9-1-1 Director Lynn Smith provided a glimpse of the sequence of events.
“The call came in to the 9-1-1 center this morning around 10 o’clock,” Smith said. “It reported the fire and multiple injuries. As things progressed, we were requesting additional units, as well as the coroner, a mobile morgue, AirLife, the power company, pretty much anything you see out here. We’re there to assist any way that we possibly can.”
Assistant Fire Chief Jason Davey and Capt. Jeff Adams of Habersham County Emergency Services provided specifics of the simulated incident and associated casualties.
“There’s a pretty extensive amount of damage from fire in there,” Davey said. “It took a little bit to put the fire out.”
Adams said the exercise incident involved about 100 total victims.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries,” Adams said. “There were 28 fatalities in the fire and explosion.”
Karen Greilich, assistant professor of nursing at the R.H. Daniel School of Nursing and Health Sciences, said planning for this year’s exercise began in May 2018 and included local, regional and state resources, including Gainesville-based AirLife Georgia 2, a medical helicopter operated by Air Methods.
“We had approval over the summer for the theme from the vice presidents and then planning began shortly thereafter trying to figure out victims and locations and simulated injuries and who would be involved where,” Greilich said. “We had multi-agency meetings both in January and earlier in March. We looked at a little bit of the logistics of things and where we would land the aircraft, and how [Georgia Emergency Management/Homeland Security] would have their drones on the ground when the aircraft was in the air.”
Dave Palmer of District 2 Public Health explained to student media representatives why that agency might be involved in a situation like the one at the college.
“I just want to say that in a real situation – you saw a lot of dead bodies today – how many morgue spaces do you think most hospitals have?” Palmer asked. “Maybe one, maybe two. Funeral homes, they don’t have a lot of capacity to take care of the bodies, so that’s where Public Health and the coroner step in. We do find morgue spaces for bodies. We have portable units that we can move around the state. We have seven of those that will hold up to 20 bodies, so we can take care of the dead bodies in a way that’s the right way to handle a body and make sure that the integrity is maintained.”
Additionally, Palmer said Public Health would be involved if there was “spill-off” of chemicals or the like from the fire.
“There’s a lot of agencies that potentially can be involved in a disaster, and I think it’s always wise to kind of look around in neighborhoods and in communities to see what you have in your community that could be a threat to the public,” Palmer said.
Bucher went on to explain more about the advantages to both responders and nursing students, as well as campus officials.
“This is a combination of things that we do for this exercise,” Bucher said. “First, it exercises the first responders and these guys and gals are always wanting a real-world situation that they can use their skills and hone their skills. We have a big nursing department. It is such a great opportunity for our nurses. You’ll see most of the nurses here are juniors and seniors, so they’re just a little ways away from getting ready to work at a hospital, so this is great experience.”
He said field responders could experience conditions similar to those in the exercise if they responded to a theater fire and explosion.
“The smoke, the noise, the lights – this is what they’re going to be facing as they graduate and move on into their career,” Bucher said. “For my operation, the facilities, how we pull that all together with the first responders, my folks and all the traffic control that the chief does, it’s just a combination of things. These are always such great events, and the fact that we were able to get the [AirLife] helicopter and the Homeland Security drone, we’re going to have some great visuals and we’re going to have some great things to talk about at the after-action.”
That after-action meeting for leaders of responding and support agencies will be held on Wednesday to discuss how the event was handled, and ways to improve any shortcomings.