Emergency simulation gives McGill’s first responders real-time experience
By Neale McDevitt
It was the kind of situation that gives first responders nightmares. A fire had broken out in a hazardous material storage room in the basement of a McGill building, severely burning one person and injuring others who fell in a stairwell during the evacuation. On top of this, a disabled employee was stranded on the fourth floor while another staffer refused to leave his office because he thought the whole event was nothing more than a fire drill.
Could things get any worse? In a word, yes. Another employee suffered a heart attack in a lab that uses radiation, and his colleagues stood helplessly outside wondering whether they should enter and pull him from the room and risk being contaminated or wait for emergency workers to arrive.
Luckily this nightmare scenario was a simulation exercise, concocted by the thorough – some would say diabolical – mind of Bruce Lapointe, Emergency Measures Officer.
“We needed to work from the ground up, to get University security staff and first responders to practice in real time,” said Lapointe of the May 14 event. “We needed to see what worked, what didn’t work, and where we need more training.”
Smoke but no fire
In all, 24 University Safety responders from Environmental Health and Safety, Security Services and Emergency Measures and Fire Prevention participated in the exercise.
The three-hour simulation was staged on a Saturday in the McTavish St. home of Emergency Measures and Fire Prevention group in order to inconvenience as few people as possible. Eight fixed cameras and one roving videographer filmed the crews as they tackled six different scenarios. Twenty-four hours of video is currently being analyzed to see what went well and what needs shoring up.
Once the action started, there were no timeouts to discuss possible options, no guidance from superiors and no do-overs when events didn’t unfold as expected. “We wanted to see how people react and to use this to create a baseline for how our people respond,” said Lapointe.
A smoke machine and four actors playing various roles, including a fully made-up burn victim, added more than a touch of reality to the exercise.
Respecting the chain of command
For his part, Claude Lahaie, Associate Director, Emergency Measures and Fire Prevention, was very pleased with the simulation. “We had done two tabletop exercises where we had people from all three groups sit at a table and focus on resolving one issue, but this was really the first time we had everyone together at the same time,” said.
“We wanted to see if, in the heat of the moment, people would miss an important step that might endanger someone. They didn’t and that’s good,” he continued. “Did we see areas in which we could improve? Definitely. And that’s good too because we can now address those areas.”
Understandably, when dealing with three different units responding to the same situation, one of the challenges was to recognize and respect the hierarchy. “It is one aspect we have to work on,” said Lahaie.
“When the Fire Department shows up, the Captain is in charge – the police, Urgences Santé, everyone goes through him. People have to understand the chain of command and not be offended by it. In an emergency situation when someone gives you a directive, you have to follow it through.”