First responders prepare
Practice makes perfect, but there is always room for improvement.
The Edgar County Emergency Services and Disaster Agency’s (ESDA) annual drill testing plans for mass casualty incidents ran into a late glitch forcing organizers to quickly put together a Plan B. Originally, the drill was slated for the Illinois National Guard’s Field Maintenance Shop on High School Road to simulate a school shooting and having students in a lockdown situation as law enforcement searched the building for the shooter.
Set for Thursday, May 10, the Guard pulled its participation late May 4.
Paris Police Chief Mike Henness said he was not given an explanation other than the decision
was made higher up the chain of command, despite Guard officials knowing of the event in advance and were aware local Guard staff was helping to plan the event and some members volunteered to serve as the wounded.
A quick revision moved the drill to the Fire Training Center on Cherry Point Road, and it was somewhat scaled back given the smaller facility.
First responders knew their jobs and moved efficiently.
The Paris police officers and an Edgar County Sheriff’s deputy quickly entered the building, found the shooter and eliminated the threat. That’s where things went awry. Radio communication between the officers, and the command post outside the building was compromised.
Officers were unable to get information radioed out about the situation such as the number of wounded and the seriousness of the injuries. Part of it had to do with the metal building but also all radio traffic was going over one channel causing messages to get dropped or overridden.
“The elephant in the room is communications,” said Henness, opening the debriefing in ESDA’s Emergency Operations Center after the drill.
It is not a matter of the first responders not knowing how to communicate but rather their efforts were hampered by technical problems. The digital channels on the radios used by police and fire to secure communications from scanners had limited abilities inside the metal fire training building.
Fire Chief Brian Gates said it is a bigger problem than just the training center, noting there are several buildings in town where the digital signal cannot get outside. He said when firefighters encounter that problem they switch to VHF channels for communication.
“We should never use ESDA to dispatch again,” said Gates, adding all of the communication coming into the ESDA frequency overwhelmed the ability of responders to be heard in a timely manner.
“We heard the police chief call for us and call for us and call for us, but we didn’t get dispatched,” said Gates.
Members of the Edgar County Special Service Area Ambulance (ECSSAA) confirmed Gates’ assessment. They also heard Henness on the radio asking multiple times for ambulances, but never heard a dispatch ordering ambulances to the scene.
Eric Shaughnessy of the ECSSAA served as an observer for the drill. He noted in a real situation many of the victims would have bled out waiting for EMS to get to them because of the delay.
“Communication is always the breakdown in these drills. It’s our Achilles Heel,” said Shaughnessy. He added a comprehensive radio plan is needed so that fire uses one channel, police another and EMS has a designated channel as a way of keeping the ESDA frequency open to coordinate all response.
A visiting observer to the drill was Chris Turner of the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS), which provides mutual aid and other assistance when an incident is too big for a local department. He said communication is where drills breakdown on a nationwide basis.
He added during a multiple-hour incident, ILEAS will come on scene with equipment that will enhance communication and augment digital radio communication.
Gates expressed some surprise that communication is always the weak link in a drill.
“In real life, things run more smoothly,” said Gates.
All things considered, it was an important learning experience.
“Exercises test plans. They don’t test people,” said Duane Fidler, former ESDA coordinator.