Emergency drill shows Denver unprepared to face nightmare

Copyright 2005 Denver Publishing Company

Rocky Mountain News

"There's bodies all around me! They're bleeding to death. We need help!"

That's the fictional 911 call that started a tabletop exercise last month when 120 Denver-area agencies practiced responding to the explosion of a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a packed Pepsi Center.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was so displeased with the response that he has ordered a Cabinet-level review of the Oct. 19 exercise and a plan of action to improve Denver's emergency response. He's also searching for a new emergency manager for the city.

"The experts ruled the exercise was a success. I hold us to a much higher standard, evidently," Hickenlooper said in an interview Friday.

The mayor said that after seeing how unprepared New Orleans was for Hurricane Katrina, he realized that disaster drills must be flawless if Denver is to fare well in the real thing.

"If we're not at near perfect in our exercises, what happens in something comes out of the blue?"

The mayor said the drill revealed faulty radio communications. In addition, managers had trouble coordinating 120 agencies that came to help 20,000 people supposedly fleeing an explosion and radioactive contamination at a Nuggets game.

Denver Assistant Fire Chief Greg Champlin, one of the exercise facilitators, said the drill also found a shortage of radiation sensors. And he'd like better equipment for predicting the path of a plume of contamination.

"We can improve patient tracking and how we are going to decontaminate large numbers of civilians," Champlin added. Officials also need to work on the flow of information to both emergency personnel on the scene and the public, he said.

Tabletop drills present participants with a nightmare scenario with the aim of letting police officers, firefighters, paramedics and others practice how to respond.

In the Oct. 19 drill, rescuers soon realize the Pepsi Center bomb is stuffed with radioactive waste. A plume of radioactivity wafts toward tens of thousands of people watching New Year's Eve fireworks on the 16th Street Mall. In another twist, the scenario had the incident commander collapse from a heart attack and die in the middle of the tragedy.

The scenario played out on tabletops at the Denver Coliseum. A video of the drill shows hundreds of toy ambulances and firetrucks being shifted about on 22 six-foot-long aerial photos of Denver. Tiny plastic soldiers were laid out to simulate 1,300 casualties. More than 300 people at various locations participated.

In the exercise, virtually every police, fire and ambulance unit in the metro area responds to the bomb. But responders had trouble communicating with agencies with different kinds of radios. That's what happened when hundreds of police and firefighters rushed to the Columbine High School shootings.

In a video of the exercise, an official speaks into a radio in one hand, then turns to speak in a different radio in his other hand. Communicating with other departments often has required using multiple radios.

This year, Denver installed computerized radio switching equipment to allow first responders from different agencies in the metro area talk to each other. But the exercise revealed that an unknown number of agencies have yet to program their radios to use the new equipment or conduct the needed training.

For example, Mike Bedwell, who runs Aurora's emergency radio system, said none of Aurora's 2,000 radios have been switched so far. He hopes to have that done in three months.

Hickenlooper said Denver officials knew all radios weren't programmed yet, but "what comes out of this is a sense of urgency" to get the job done.

Champlin of the Denver Fire Department said dispatchers were hampered because they had to use portable radios instead of the more sophisticated equipment in their dispatch centers. "We took away three-quarters of the tools in their toolbox," because exercise coordinators didn't want to disrupt the city's response to normal emergencies that day, he said. But that meant dispatchers could not act as they would in a real disaster, he said.

Also in the video, Denver paramedic Tom Cribley says no victims were transported to hospitals during the first 30 minutes after the blast.

Asked if he was happy with a 30-minute delay in taking victims to the hospital, Hickenlooper said, "I wanted people to function more in real time" in the drill. Instead, responders knew there weren't real people hurt, and they didn't act with urgency, he said.

Officials had planned to follow up the $50,000 tabletop drill with a more expensive one next year using real people and equipment at the Pepsi Center. But Deputy Safety Manager Tracy Howard said that plan has been shelved until problems are worked out in another tabletop exercise.

The mayor said he has asked Deputy Mayor and Public Works Manager Bill Vidal to meet with the Cabinet and do a thorough assessment of the exercise. They'll also look at Denver's resources in responding to a disaster, and the experience and planning in other cities. Vidal is to report back by January.

There's also urgency to find a new emergency manager for the city.

Hickenlooper said the city's last emergency manager left when he took office in 2003. The mayor looked for a replacement but didn't find one, so Howard added that job to his duties. Hickenlooper said he has now concluded it is a full-time job.

"I believed our readiness was sufficient. The exercise pointed out we needed more practice, more training," the mayor said.

"It's like buying insurance for your house. You tell yourself you'll never use it, but you better have it."

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