Several Lawrence firefighters Tuesday morning approached a group of four men who were feeling ill in a vehicle just outside St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in west Lawrence.
A dispatcher also warned the firefighters, who wore protective gloves, that two Topeka hospitals that morning had also seen several patients who exhibited flu-like symptoms. As the Lawrence firefighters began conducting interviews, they learned the men in the vehicle had come the night before from Topeka, where they attended a political rally near the Statehouse.
As the connection to a more widespread health issue became a possibility and the men’s conditions worsened, crews began to take a more cautious approach.
“Then this triggers a different type of response,” said Lawrence Fire Chief Mark Bradford, who observed the exercise and recorded it on an iPad.
The firefighters then used a fire hose on a very low setting to hose down the men as a precaution before they took them to Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The firefighters also decontaminated themselves later with the hose.
Several Douglas County agencies and LMH on Tuesday participated in the disaster exercise in which a small crop duster plane had flown over the rally Monday evening and accidentally dropped pesticides on several people in the crowd.
Bob Newton, an emergency management spokesman, said the training was part of a grant that involves a full-scale exercise in Douglas County that included setting up command centers downtown and at LMH. Lawrence police and Douglas County sheriff’s officers helped secure the scene west of Lawrence and worked to investigate whether the source of the discharge of pesticides could be considered bioterrorism. Under the scenario it was simply an accident, Newton said.
The hospital also practiced patient decontamination and other procedures. Other functional exercises will be staged in Geary, Franklin and Jefferson counties. Tabletop exercises took place in 15 other northeast Kansas counties on Tuesday.
Bradford said the exercise was aimed at measuring both a local and regional response to an illness that spreads across an area, particularly as people who are exposed leave one area and travel home.
“We’re not evaluating individuals. We’re here evaluating our training we have in place here, the equipment we have and staffing issues,” Bradford said.
At LMH, Joan Harvey, the emergency department director, said staff members were preparing to care for patients who might have been exposed.
“We prepare an area that is for the patients who walk up and the patients who come in by ambulance,” she said. “One of our goals is to protect the hospital because we do not want the hospital to become contaminated because, therefore, we could not provide services to the community.”
Newton said one key for officials here and in the region will be an evaluation on the whole exercise.
“People can assess strengths and weaknesses and make any recommendations for future plans,” he said.