Exercise lesson learned -- we need to play for real

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephen Wisser
  • Chief, Wing Plans and Exercises
I want to take you behind the scenes and show you what it was like to participate in our recent hazardous material exercise. 

Shortly after the Force Protection Condition/Anti Hijacking exercise the first week of September, in-depth planning began for the October exercise block. In looking at our requirements and weighing in on the wing objectives, a scaled-down version of our unit compliance inspection scenario was agreed upon. 

We would stage a traffic accident between a mini-van and a delivery truck carrying common commercial cleaners. For this exercise our delivery truck simulated carrying ammonia and bleach. A common occurrence with one dangerous consequence -- if these two chemicals get mixed they can produce chlorine gas, hydrazine, hydrochloric acid and corrosive fumes that can explode. 

To meet our objectives we would need 15 causalities. Five of them would be directly exposed at the scene of the accident and 10 would be indirectly exposed by driving, walking or biking through the chemical plume. They would self-identify at the clinic. 

In the past we have used lieutenants awaiting pilot training to play the causalities. Not this time. Exercise evaluation team members would play the key roles. They are in the planning process from the beginning and have a clear understanding of the incident commander and Medical Group objectives for the exercise. Practicing what I preach, I volunteered to be the first to lead this new process. 

After our Tuesday EET meeting I went home to check in my closet for any unserviceable uniforms items I could use for the exercise. I found two uniforms and a pair of flight boots that fit the requirement. 

These are important because my exercise character would be contaminated by the chemicals and would sustain an injury. At the clinic the in-place patient decontamination team would have to place me on a litter and cut my uniform off before the decontamination process. 

At 7 a.m., Thursday morning, exercise day, I went to the Command Post to get final exercise instructions from the EET chief and meet with the EET members before the 8:05 a.m. start. I was "moulaged" by medical folks to accurately display the inhalation and leg injuries I would be "exposed" to. 

I left the building and went to my spot in base housing so I could observe the accident happen. As part of the exercise I worked my way back to the Plans office coughing and complaining of eye irritation and letting them know I just witnessed a traffic accident with an unknown chemical release. 

One Vance member stepped up and asked me if I needed assistance -- good on him. I politely said no and headed for the clinic. I arrived at the exercise staging point at about 8:25 a.m. and waited until the Medical EET folks gave me the go ahead to arrive at the clinic. 

The plan was to have the 10 exercise patients come to the clinic in waves. The first would be a wave of two, followed by the second of five and then the third and final wave of three. 

I was looking for the Medical Control Center to have the IPPD station all set up and I would just head right for it. However, it was 9 a.m. and the IPPD station was silent. So I headed right into the front doors of the clinic. 

Now, exercise aside, how many people get to run into the clinic and start screaming that they need help? I did. 

I entered the main patient lobby screaming that my eyes are burning and my leg is severely injured. The look on the pharmacy technicians' faces was priceless. 

A doctor walking through the lobby heard the commotion and got some help, triaged me, put me in a wheel chair because of my leg injuries and placed me outside while the IPPD station was setup. 

Once the station was setup I was placed on a NATO gurney, a litter with wheels, and the technicians started cutting away at my contaminated clothing. Once prepped, I was ready for the decontamination process. 

The technicians turned on the heated water, a necessity since it was about 45 F outside, and started rolling me through the scrubbing and cleansing stations. Once clear of the IPPD I was quickly taken into the urgent treatment room for further analysis. 

The staff evaluated my condition and deemed me ready for transportation to the simulated hospital. My journey ended as I was loaded on an exercise ambulance and taken away. There I was logged in and tracked by the patient admin teams that were dispatched when the first causalities were simulated being sent downtown. 

The lesson here is that we need to play for real. Go the extra step when possible. If there is an opportunity to actually accomplish a task then do it. The words "I would simulate" do not afford people the opportunity to practice tasks they might not do every day. 

And before you throw out those old uniform items, ask the medical readiness or exercise folks if they could use them in an upcoming scenario. You never know -- the life you save might be your own.