December 21, 2014
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J&W puts first responders to test with disaster simulation
Meg Fraser
MEDICAL ATTENTION: EMT Althea Cairone treats Joe Connor, one of the student volunteers.

Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars rushed to the Harbor View residential hall on the Johnson & Wales campus Friday, walkie-talkies blasting out messages of an ammonia leak in the Bay behind the university. But Director of Community Relations Everett Brooks assured passersby that there was nothing to worry about.

It was only a test.

The simulated disaster was coordinated through the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and engaged more than 70 first responders from Cranston, Warwick and Providence, as well as the Coast Guard and staff at Johnson & Wales, in order to test emergency procedures and train communities in disaster response.

“We have a number of agencies represented here,” said Major Michael Quinn, executive director of campus security and safety, who was the point person for the exercise. “We are the ones who bring this drill together so we could test our objectives. The last thing you want to have is be introduced with a local emergency service provider when an actual emergency occurs.”

After 9 a.m. Friday, police and fire were notified of an “incident” through a fake 9-1-1-phone call from a neighbor who witnessed a boat spill ammonia in the harbor. As police, fire and rescues began a countdown to imitate their actual response times, Johnson & Wales students were notified of the incident through the school’s emergency notification system. E-mails, phone calls and text messages all informed the students of protocol, which in this case corralled the group of volunteer students into a classroom. The university also has an emergency siren that can send out an audible voice message giving instructions, though that was not utilized last week.

The shelter-in-place portion of the drill left resident directors in charge, checking students in and gathering information on any symptoms being felt. The students had been pre-assigned symptoms to act out, testing the staff’s know-how.

Sophomore Kayla Cooper was the first to fall ill, complaining of a burning sensation in her eyes. Resident advisors handed over eyewash, as students taped windows and doorways shut. Outside of the classroom, university officials were shutting down the HVAC system. At the command center, responders monitored weather and wind conditions to determine how the ammonia spill would travel.

Stephen Conard, {* ok *} regional planner for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, watched over the drill carefully.

“We make sure they’re staying within the guidelines of the procedures,” he said. “It’s really just making sure the right precautions are taken.”

Conard had a checklist in hand, monitoring each phase of the drill. He oversees these drills around the state, and also coordinates the school safety programs at all of the colleges and universities in Rhode Island. In the near future, he’ll be visiting Brown and Providence College to monitor a mock school shooter situation.

“In a real event, we would be providing on-scene assistance,” he added.

Neighbors of the campus were notified in advance of the drill.

“When we do something like this, we do a distribution of flyers. We usually spend a weekend talking to everyone,” Brooks said. “They really appreciate the notification.”

The exercise happens at least once a year. In May of 2011, a similar drill simulated a poisonous gas emission, according to communications and media relations specialist Madeline Parmenter. In that instance, a makeup artist was on hand, creating fake wounds on the students.

“It was really dramatic,” she said, recalling one group of students who, on their own, came up with the idea to try to escape from the shelter, further challenging the first responders. “The kids were great.”

Going into the drills, including Friday’s simulation, students and staff are kept largely in the dark, as they want the reactions from safety personnel to be genuine.

“They don’t tell us too much because they want us to play along,” Parmenter said.


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