Trumbull High becomes ground zero in emergency response drill
Ordinarily, the halls of Trumbull High School are pretty quiet during the last days of June. On Tuesday, June 25, however, the building was alive with the squawks of walkie-talkies and the boots of emergency personnel as area first responders took part in a multi-town emergency-preparedness exercise.
The event involved a simulated anthrax exposure at the Stratford Metro-North station. Should the public ever be truly exposed to such a deadly substance, Trumbull High would spring into action as an emergency medical dispensary. The exercise provided emergency response people with a dress rehearsal of sorts.
Crews on hand consisted of employees from each town’s fire, police and health departments, as well as volunteers. Trumbull High School is actually one of two places locally where people who suspect they might have been exposed could obtain medicine that would not otherwise be readily available in massive quantities. The other designated dispensary is Bunnell High School in Stratford.
All Connecticut towns and cities have similar emergency groups, and the state is divided into seven regions containing consisting of multiple multi-town regional response teams. Trumbull, Monroe and Stratford work together to coordinate emergency response, and all had people who took part in the June 25 event.
“For this exercise, we ‘found’ two backpacks containing anthrax on board a northbound Metro North train in Stratford,” noted Andrea Boissevain, director of the Stratford Health Department.
The simulation called for the crisis to take place on a Sunday, aboard a train carrying approximately 1,500 passengers. Of them, 653 would be detained and sent for treatment. Were such an incident to take place on a weekday, those numbers would likely be much higher.
As an infectious agent, anthrax caught the public’s eye in 2001 soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. Letters containing anthrax spores were found in several news media offices and government locations. Ultimately, 17 people got sick and five people died, including an elderly woman in nearby Oxford.
A person can become severely ill from inhaling anthrax. Symptoms can be mistaken for a mild respiratory infection or flu, but within a week or so a patient will begin to have severe difficulty breathing and, if untreated, will go into shock or worse.
“However, anthrax can be treated if treatment begins soon after exposure, which is why we would need to mobilize a mass dispensary to provide lifesaving medications,” Boissevain explained.
Because of the deadly nature of anthrax the federal government stockpiles large quantities of two antibiotics effective at treating it: doxycycline and ciproflaxin. These can be quickly deployed to local emergency-response teams in the event of a crisis.
“In this situation our goal would be to distribute medications to anyone who was on board the train,” Boissevain noted. To expedite treatment, patients would first fill out a form obtainable via the internet. It asks questions such as the patient’s age, if any allergic conditions, and whether the patient is pregnant. Those answers would determine the medication that patient would receive.
Drills such as this are vital to ensuring such emergency facilities can set themselves up quickly in the event of a crisis and administer assistance effectively. One participant in the exercise was Mark Rozelle, an Easton resident and American Red Cross volunteer. He frequently travels to other parts of the U.S. to assist people affected by floods, hurricanes and other crises.
“When I go, I’m there for three to four weeks at a time and I can tell you that disaster-preparedness exercises such as this one today are invaluable in helping prepare for the real thing,” Rozelle said.
All of the public officials present had new roles in addition to their usual professional responsibilities. Boissevain, for instance, was the designated public information officer for the event and as such, conducted a mock press conference that morning.
Besides holding events like those, the PIO’s role would also encompass getting the word out to the public via mass emails — such as through multiple towns’ email-alert lists and “Code Red” emergency-notification systems, and even posting information on Facebook and Instagram.
One local official who attended the event was Monroe First Selectman Ken Kellogg, who has a professional background in emergency services. He proclaimed the drill a great success. “This is a shining example of great regionalization of our emergency-response teams,” he noted.