Havre Daily News
Fire alarms sounded at the Northern Montana Care Center on Thursday morning. Hallways were packed with residents being escorted by staff to designated safety zones.
The Havre Fire Department rushed to the scene after receiving a call about an explosion at care center's south parking lot from a gas leak at 10:04 a.m.
It's hard telling what will happen during an emergency situation, but practice improves the hospital's chances of being perfect. Thursday's disaster drill was one that's required of all hospitals and nursing homes across the country, according to Northern Montana Care Center director Lori Henderson.
“Every month we have to run a fire drill, and annually we're required to do a disaster drill or participate in the evacuation of residents and the influx of patients in the ER,” said Henderson, who is also the safety officer for Northern Montana Health Care. “This allows us to test our emergency preparedness capabilities.”
Henderson said the point of the drill wasn't to be perfect, but to find problem areas and determine which procedures runsmoothly.
“This gave us the opportunity to learn what we did well. This gives us opportunities on improvement,” she said. “But I thought everything went really well.”
Shortly after the fire alarms went off, the Havre Fire Department went to an area in the south parking lot where there are no gas lines to begin fighting the fire from the explosion. Assistant Fire Chief Tim Ranes and fire Capt. Tim Hedges were lifted into the air by the department's snorkel truck to hose down the grassy area.
Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said the drill provided his staff with a good training opportunity as well.
“Gas leaks have been called in and if it's something that we can correct easily, then we will. But if we can't, then we'll call NorthWestern Energy for anything that is major,” he said. “I thought it went well. I wasn't able to see how the drill went 100 percent from the hospital side, but I thought they did fine.
“We like to work with different facilities around town. We like to practice with them because then we have some understanding of how their operation works,” he said.
Some staffers were asked to be observers during the mock fire. The observers and administrators met for a brief meeting in a conference room to go over thier roles and responsibilities beforehand. Later, administrators and staff had a debriefing to discuss some of the procedures that need improvement as well as performance that deserved a pat on the back.
Kathie Newell, public relations manager, said no residents were given notice of the drill.
The reason for the secrecy is so “the staff will be able to practice the things that they should know,” Henderson said during the meeting. “So you have to have some people versed in the scenario so that it goes off the way that you want, and so you can practice the key elements of the drill.”
During the drill, residents were told about it and reassured that there was no safety threat, Henderson said.
Marianne Capellen, a receptionist, was an observer during the exercise. Capellen's job was to watch what was going on at the south end of the center. She stood aside during the hectic scene as a young construction worker, in actuality Havre High School student Dan Marino, was being wheeled into the care center on a stretcher.
“The hardest part for me was to stand there and watch,” she said.
Capellen has worked at the hospital for two years, and this was the first disaster drill in which she's been a participant.
A key element, participants agreed, was communication, both between the hospital and the Fire Department and among hospital staffers.
Some problems were identified during the afternoon safety meeting. Those included problems with portable radios not functioning in “dead” areas, staff members not being notified during the emergency situation, and a shortage of help in the emergency room.
Robert Ingrim, a supervisor at the care center, said he couldn't always hear announcements made on the center's paging system due to the overpowering fire alarms.
Henderson said the fire alarms can be silenced during an emergency so staff can hear the public addresses to understand what's going on, something staffers were too busy to do during the drill. Some residents covered their ears as they were being evacuated into the dining halls, which were designated as the safety zones during the drill.
Radio dead zones might be caused by interference from the hospital's electronic equipment or obstructions such as lead-lined radiology rooms, Henderson said.
“The key is to have enough redundant systems and reliability so that if one way doesn't work, the other one will,” she said.
Sheppard said he was alarmed to see care center staffers putting themselves in harm's way before firefighters arrived, carrying fire extinguishers while taking care of two “injured” construction workers before firefighters arrived. He said he would rather have two victims versus a baker's dozen.
Henderson said the hospital has had elaborate disaster drills in the past and is required to drill each year unless there's an actual emergency. The hospital responded to an emergency last year and so it didn't have a drill. Residents had to be moved away from windows during a severe thunderstorm, and that counted toward the drill requirement, she said.
Yearly drills are important because uniform hospital procedures change, Henderson said. The hospital code for a fire used to be XYZ. The fire code is now referred to as a Code RED and that was the signal practiced in Thursday's drill.
Drills help the entire community, not just the hospital, Henderson said.
“When you look at homeland security and natural disasters, like what happened in New Orleans, that shows how important it is to be forever ready,” she said. “Running this drill allows us to be prepared.”
Despite some areas that need improvement, Henderson was pleased with the staff's response during the disaster drill.
“Everyone responded well and we identified some weak areas in the protocol,” she said. “The staff operated so well and so efficiently.
“We wanted (the staff) to have the practice so that nobody gets panicky and makes mistakes,” she added. “It's a concrete example for the memory banks so that next time it happens, they've already done it and been through it.”