Emergency responders drill for bio hazard emergency

About 60 people from at least 10 different agencies met at Oregon State University on Wednesday to make sure that their hazardous material response protocol works as well in practice as it does on paper.

“This is the closest we’ve come to staging a real-world event,” said Mathew Rodgers, OSU’s emergency manager.

Armored vehicles lined the streets around Cauthorn Hall, where the scenario was staged. Firefighters who had been exposed to the “hazard” were hosed off and stood in three different pools to be scrubbed down of an unspecified imaginary hazardous material.

For OSU’s Hazardous Materials Technician Pete Schoonover, who orchestrated the event, the drill was about making sure all the agencies were on the same page in case an actual emergency were to occur.

“In the event that in the future we’re all working together, we’ve interacted. When things go belly up, those relationships have been made,” Schoonover said. “It’s a good way to build rapport.”

The drill included two scenarios that began with students suffering from fever, exhaustion, painful lymph nodes, vomiting and diarrhea. An investigation quickly narrowed the problem to two dorms at Cauthorn Hall. But finding the tiny source of the plague-like Tularemia outbreak (eventually determined to be mice kept in a dorm room) and then containing it was key to the exercise.

Participants in the elaborate scenario were OSU Environmental Health and Safety, Oregon State Fire Marshal Region 5 Hazmat Team, Civil Service Team out of Salem, Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, Benton County Public Health, OSU Department of Public Safety and the Oregon State Police, among others.

Schoonover said the drill was important because it allowed first responders to practice protocol for pinpointing and addressing a realistic bio-hazard crisis.

“It could happen; there’s always the potential,” he said. “This is a chance to see how it goes and find gaps.”

Corvallis firefighter Josh Crawford is a member of the Hazmat response team for Region 5, which includes Linn and Benton counties. He went into the dorms and surveyed the situation in order to get more information on what the team was dealing with.

“Initially you have limited information, so we go in and identify the threats,” he said.

Hazmat team members then suited up in more protective gear to remove the substance. Oregon’s Civil Support Team, a rapid response squad for hazardous materials situations, analyzed the substance to pinpoint the biological threat. They first eliminated as a source a dorm where a student had set up a lab and were able to identify the mice in another dorm room as the source of the contagion. The imaginary mice ended up sending several fictitious students to the hospital.

“It is probably a bit far-fetched, I guess, but it’s something within the realm of possibility,” OSU Biological Safety Officer Matthew Phillpot said.

Emily Gillespie can be reached at 541-758-9548 or emily.gillespie@gazettetimes.com.

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