ALLENDALE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — One day after a driver plowed into a crowd in Pennsylvania, killing one person and leaving 17 injured, a drill trained first responders in West Michigan for that kind of tragedy if it were to ever happen here.
Dozens of police officers, firefighters and medical crews took part in the exercise at Grand Valley State University on Sunday afternoon.
Organizers say large-scale emergencies with many people being hurt can happen anywhere, anytime. That’s why they want first responders to get real-world training in major emergency situations.
Louis Hunt, the director of emergency management for Ottawa County, helped organize the training. The goal: to be ready for anything.
“What you saw today is everybody’s worst day in public safety,” Hunt said.
Organizers said the Pennsylvania incident is a tragic reminder of why disaster preparation is so important — it can save lives.
“We’ve got to exercise these things,” said Rich Szczepanek, the EMS systems administrator for the Ottawa Medical Control Board Authority. “Those are the things that we’re going to do when we have — not if — when we have an incident like this. Hopefully we never do. But we’ve got to be prepared.”
Reflecting the tragedy in Pennsylvania, the premise of Sunday’s drill was a driver hitting people outside the football stadium on campus. Thirty volunteer actors played victims hit by the vehicle, calling for help.
It’s a crisis that requires special preparation, with responders needing to attend to many victims and quickly determine who needs immediate help.
“They really couldn’t stop at one (person),” Szczepanek said. “It’s a difficult thing to do, but it’s something we have to train our personnel to do.”
First responders marked the victims with different colored ribbons to make it clear who required assistance first.
“You’re sorting the immediate patients to the patients that are hurt but can wait a little while,” he said. “You just try and get over there and look at their injuries and assess them. Airways, breathing and circulation. Are those good?”
Szczepanek said Ottawa County first responders do a fantastic job, but larger-scale emergencies require a larger approach and extensive preparation.
“Last night in Pennsylvania, where you have a car that goes through a crowd here, it’s a whole different ballgame,” he said. “We have to be able to train on that.”
Organizers called the drill a success, partly because it revealed room for growth.
“Our measure of success is to look at what are some of those capabilities we need to improve on,” Hunt said.
One example: better communication between the several agencies all working together on scene.
“You always have some degree of communications issues,” Hunt said. “We actually created a mass casualty incident communications plan just for growing incidents like this. It’s very new.”
The exercise was nearly a year in the making. Szczepanek said it’s the first time Ottawa County has done this. Hunt added that it’s been needed for many years.
Organizers hope to do the training annually to prepare more first responders in the area. Szczepanek said there are 400 firefighters across Ottawa County, and about 30 to 40 took part in Sunday’s training.
“We have more people that we need to train,” he said. “We have to address that turnover that we get and keep on training. That’s the only way we’re going to be prepared.”
Hunt said doing this every year may be a challenge because some departments are strained enough as it is, making sending personnel difficult.
Blendon Township Fire Rescue, Allendale Fire Rescue, Grand Valley State Police, Ottawa County Sheriff’s deputies, Grand Haven Township Fire, Olive Township Fire and Holland Fire were among the many emergency responders taking part in the drill. Numerous ambulance crews from local hospitals were also on scene.