U.S. Army Uses Utah High School for Disaster Drill

(DESERET NEWS)   TOOELE — Rick Spencer saw his share of emergencies as athletic trainer at Salt Lake City’s Highland High School — but never gas inhalation.

On Wednesday, Spencer gave first aid to “victims” of a “lab explosion” at Tooele High School as part of the annual Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program drill.

Greg Mahall, public-affairs chief of the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency, said the high school was one of three Tooele locations that staged mock drills, an annual operation which involved more than 600 people and several agencies from Tooele, Salt Lake and Utah counties.

In one morning, three mock disasters struck Tooele simultaneously: A truck crashed into a vehicle carrying mustard agent, resulting in fire, the scattering of cattle, and a town’s evacuation; the county experienced a 5.5 magnitude earthquake; and the high-school lab blew up.

Spencer, now a health-sciences teacher at Tooele High School, crouched with his students under their desks in response to the earthquake drill and then was called outside to help with another “emergency,” an explosion in a class laboratory.

On the school’s front lawn, Erikah Critchlow, 16, sat with a broken ankle. But her injury seemed benign compared to Hayden Wright’s carotid-artery injury. Splattered with fake blood and holding a cloth to his neck, Wright, 16, said he was sitting in a lab when something exploded, sending shards of glass flying.

Spencer said he was bewildered at the seemingly slow response from emergency personnel, when minutes stretched into two hours. He was then informed that responders were deliberately kept away from the area, labeled a “hot zone,” until it was deemed safe. Finally, a hazardous-materials crew brought out stretchers and decontaminated the victims.

Meanwhile, at the north end of town, fire and hazmat trucks lined the circular driveway of Mountain Medical Center in response to a “chemical spill” at the Deseret Chemical Depot, about 20 miles south of Tooele. Emergency crews administered first aid and directed 13 “patients” through decontamination.

Doug Sagers, the hospital’s public-information officer, said, “Our goal is to not just go through the motions but to make the situation as realistic as possible. It is a learning experience.”

In yet another part of town, Kari Sagers, the Tooele County Emergency Management director, beamed as she surveyed the hub of emergency services at the newly built Emergency Operations Center. When asked how the county is prepared for a real chemical emergency, Sagers cited cutting-edge training, equipment and facilities uncommon in a rural community this size.

“We are better prepared today than yesterday,” she said. She said she has seen the county’s emergency plan grow from a broom closet at the county attorney’s office in 1989 into a multi-million dollar operation funded by the U.S. Army and the Department of Homeland Security. She said an evaluation will most likely be completed by next week and will summarize lessons learned from this drill.

Spencer, for one, decided that next time, he would remember to bring his defibrillator. He still staffs games at Highland High, made famous by the rugby film “Forever Strong.” On treating chemical-accident victims, he said, “It’s certainly different than pulling teeth at a rugby game.”


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