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Emergency agencies assess capabilities

With their resources tested by the recent fatal bus accident on Interstate 80, Truckee area emergency officials are taking a closer look at how well-prepared the town is for mass casualty incidents.

The Sept. 26 bus accident, which killed two people and injured more than 30, tested the Truckee Fire Protection District’s limited supplies, according to Fire Chief Mike Terwilliger.

Testing the agencies is OK with the supplemental resources that reside with existing mutual aid agreements with fire and medical entities in adjacent areas. But what happens if a mass casualty incident happens while the interstate is closed due to inclement weather? TFPD, the Town of Truckee and Tahoe Forest Hospital want to know.

“We have a lot of exposures right here in town,” Terwilliger said. “Although our department is staffed to handle the typical flow of incidents, there are exposures from outside our area that affect us.”

Tour buses, air traffic and rail traffic increase the stakes for the area’s agencies and hospital.

“We were lucky with the bus accident,” Terwilliger said. “We knew who was critical and what patients could wait while ambulances responded. The bus only rolled onto its side. If it had rolled one more time we would have had more casualties and serious injuries.”

Russ Mann, pre-hospital care coordinator at Tahoe Forest Hospital, agreed.

“We are ideally placed for mass casualty disasters,” he said. “Our resources have been stretched. The problem lies with the true mass casualty incidents involving 50 or more patients, not to mention if they are all critical.”

To help answer questions about the preparedness of the district, hospital and town, a drill is planned for Nov. 5 to test some of the equipment and resource limitations within the three participating departments.

Town Manager Steve Wright said the town supports any preplanning efforts.

“There is value in preplanning,” Wright said. “We will be a cooperative player in any disaster preparedness. We implement our ‘gridlock’ plan each year to test resources in the event of an incident during a time when everything is shut down.”

Terwilliger said he appreciates the town’s concern for public safety.

“We are a rural area and people tend to forget that,” he said. “There are limited resources and limited supplies. I am hoping the upcoming drill opens up dialogue between the stakeholders.”

Mann said there are big expectations of what TFPD can handle.

“All of the pre-hospital care falls with them – for resources and equipment,” he said. “There is no way that Truckee Fire can do it all alone and that is why we want to try to help. Maybe there is some way to put together a cache of supplies so that one incident doesn’t completely exhaust Truckee Fire.”

Terwilliger said a cache of supplies is desperately needed.

“The bus accident was another wake-up call,” he said. “We were short on basic equipment like backboards. Every patient, especially in vehicle accidents, needs to be transported with a cervical collar and backboard (to stabilize the spine). That accident depleted our supply and we still haven’t gotten all of our equipment back from the hospitals in Reno.”

Something as basic as a backboard costs the district $200 each.

“We are not in a position to be able to afford a supply of 200 backboards in the event of a mass casualty incident,” Terwilliger said.

Mann added that conducting an exercise such as the Nov. 5 drill will be the first step to organizing community resources, not just district resources.

“I think it’s unfair that the entire burden rests with a small department like Truckee Fire,” Mann said. “The district is responsible for more than 50 miles of highway, an airport and a railroad.”

Terwilliger said another exposure generally overlooked is weather.

“Incidents don’t always happen when it’s sunny and warm,” he said. “During the winter, someone who is injured could suffer more from exposure to the weather than the incident itself.

“Where are we going to put people, a large group of people, if a mass casualty disaster happens? Every time I ask someone they say people will be sheltered at the churches or the schools. What if no one is at the church or the incident is located at a school? It’s not a good enough answer.”

Terwilliger and the Town want to move past assumptions. Long-range planning is the answer to many of the questions that could spell increased disasters during an incident.

“A haz mat spill could force the evacuation of the entire downtown and surrounding areas, or the collapse of a school’s roof under the weight of snow could force 600 kids into the street,” Terwilliger said. “Where are we going to put people?”

Tamara Blanton, who works with the Town and in coordination with the emergency planning, said the upcoming drill has been in the planning for months. It is the first mock mass casualty incident the town, hospital and fire district have participated in together.

When asked about disaster preparedness, Nevada County Sheriff’s Captain Ken Duncan said his office is prepared with voluminous manuals.

Terwilliger and Mann said they wish the sheriff’s office would become more involved in large-scale disaster planning for a more coordinated effort.

“Any preplanning is worth the effort,” Mann said.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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