Fairview Northland Medical Center staff and local emergency services personnel had no idea when they gathered for a disaster drill December 11 that three days later a real-life tragedy would be happening 1,300 miles away in Newtown, Conn.
As a matter of fact, the scene at the mock tragedy in Princeton wasn’t so different from the tragedy in Newtown, where on Friday, Dec. 14 a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
On Dec. 11, a drill was being conducted in Princeton on how to deal with such assailants.
Fairview Emergency Management Specialist Chris Nelson organized the drill for the ER staff at Fairview Northland on Dec. 11 to be trained on what to do if a gunman with a deadly mission should get into the ER premises.
Nelson also had Princeton Police Chief Brian Payne and a number of his officers take part in the drill as a training exercise. And so the drill began at Fairview Northland at 1 p.m. with the arrival of a mock assailant, followed not long after by Princeton police officers. After two evolutions of the assailant going in to take a hostage and then being found and apprehended by the police, the drill was over within a half-hour.
In each case, the mock assailant, played by Chris Anderson, first carried out a fake shooting of the hospital’s head security officer Spencer Gerking inside the ER lobby. As Gerking sat slumped back in his chair with a mock wound, the assailant got through the door leading from the lobby to the ER interior.
Someone at ER made the mock 911 call, and Princeton officers arrived shortly after, with Payne sending officers through the doorway where the assailant had disappeared inside. Officers Matt Mullins, Alex Dehn, Jason Cederberg and investigator Todd Frederick went through the ER hallways searching for the mock assailant with inert firearms. Chief Payne and department Sgt. Joe Backlund observed the drill, with Payne giving instructions now and then to the officers.
In each of the two drill evolutions, the officers found the assailant in a room inside the ER engaged in a mock hostage taking. Volunteer Todd Anderson, portraying himself as an ER employee, lay on the floor acting as if he had been wounded by the assailant.
A drill like this, Payne said, has the same value as if officers were training for any emergency, including a tornado or fire disaster. The training is done so that first responders will just follow their training and not hesitate or waiver in what to do, Payne said. The training increases the survival rate of the responders, the hospital staff and anyone else involved, Payne said.
A lot of events that warrant emergency response could happen in a hospital ER, Payne noted. Someone, for example, “could be going crazy” and that could be from some medical or allergic reaction, Payne said, speaking long before the tragedy in Connecticut had begun.
Nelson, who is the emergency management specialist working between the Fairview hospitals in Princeton and Wyoming, Minn., when he isn’t on fire captain duty at Twin Cities International Airport, also commented. Nelson began that Fairview Northland had an emergency drill in its Birth Place department a year earlier. In that drill, the police had to locate and take control of a mock aggressor.
Payne and Nelson did not want to make public the exact minutes it took for the Princeton officers to find the assailant during the Dec. 11 drill. But Nelson said he was “very impressed” with the time frame of the officers getting the situation under control, calling it “well above the national standard.”
Nelson explained that the drills last year and this year at Fairview Northland are the hospital’s “proactive” approach to prepare for the mandatory drill test that hospitals will face in 2013. The Joint Commission that gives hospitals accreditation, is requiring the drill starting next year, according to Nelson. He said that Fairview Northland is one of the few hospitals in the country doing as much training as it has been in advance of the required drills.
Long before scheduling the drills at Fairview Northland, Nelson said, he and Gerking had assembled a policy for how hospital staff persons are to respond to a code yellow, which means there is an active shooter on the property.
Lessons learned at hospital
Nelson didn’t yet have an answer for what he felt was learned by the Dec. 11 drills. He explained that he has 30 days to write an after-action report that would analyze all of that. Besides the volunteers and the officers in the drill, the hospital also had five staff members serving as observers.
These drills give a chance to see how the first responders can better communicate, Nelson added. For one thing, it’s a way for the hospital staff to be introduced to the police officers before a real emergency. Being “introduced” to the police chief when an emergency happens is not the best time, Nelson explained.
Nelson was clear that there will be much discussion ahead among he, Fairview Northland ER staff, and police officers.