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Did the emergency response to Amtrak derailment go as planned?

This photo provided by Washington State Patrol shows an Amtrak train that derailed south of Seattle on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017.  The train derailed about 40 miles  south of Seattle before 8 a.m., spilling at least one train car on to busy Interstate 5. (Associated Press)
This photo provided by Washington State Patrol shows an Amtrak train that derailed south of Seattle on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. The train derailed about 40 miles south of Seattle before 8 a.m., spilling at least one train car on to busy Interstate 5. (Associated Press)
By Rolf Boone The Olympian

Christopher Barnard Sr., assistant chief of operations for Joint Base Lewis-McChord fire and emergency services, arrived at work near DuPont at 7:30 a.m. Monday when the shift was changing.

Nothing serious had happened overnight, so Barnard was about to send out a message to his crew, essentially telling them to have a good day.

Then at 7:38 a.m. an emergency call came in, requesting engine after engine after engine to respond, punctuated finally by “This is not a drill.” And that sent Barnard off and running, racing to the scene of an Amtrak train that had derailed on an Interstate 5 overpass, south of DuPont at Mounts Road.

Officials who coordinated Monday’s emergency response say it was largely pulled off successfully, although they say they will be tweaking some of their response plans. Some suggestions: Improved communication and coordination between plans and personnel in Thurston and Pierce counties, and making sure important information is readily available.

Barnard described the response as “amazing,” given the number of patients involved, the transportation that was required, and the challenging location of the crash. Still, he has a recommendation: Address the fact that emergency responders communicate on different radio frequencies in Pierce and Thurston counties.

Barnard said he was the first on-scene commander, followed by Lacey Fire District 3 Battalion Chief Ryan Fox. The two of them huddled and managed the scene for the next two hours. Within 15 minutes, eight fire engine companies had responded, with more than 50 people on site ready to help, he said. Ninety-five injured Amtrak passengers were moved out of the site in the first 90 minutes, Barnard said.

After those first two hours, Barnard said he worked with the Pierce County incident management team and then it was a multi-agency response, involving JBLM, Amtrak, the state Department of Transportation and Washington State Patrol – a unified command working to deal with a mass casualty event in which three people died and about 100 were injured.

What Providence St. Peter Hospital learned

Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia drills two to three times a year on its disaster response. It swung its plan into action as soon as they learned of the derailment, said Jackie Brown, director of critical care and emergency services. The hospital put its own internal plan into action, but it also serves as the Disaster Medical Control Center for Region 3, which covers Thurston, Lewis, Mason, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties.

The DMCC coordinates the movement of injured patients based on a color-coordinated identification process. Red identifies critical patients while yellow and green are less urgent. Providence wound up with 11 Amtrak patients, while eight went to Capital Medical Center in west Olympia, although three were later transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the only Level 1 trauma center for the states of Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

By Thursday, most of the patients had gone home, leaving Providence with four derailment-injured people.

Other steps taken by Providence upon hearing of the derailment: Surgeries that were already underway at the hospital were allowed to be completed, but it delayed other surgeries in case Amtrak passengers or crew needed surgery.

All units of the hospital were notified of the situation. Personnel that could be released to help gathered and formed a labor pool that the hospital could draw on to meet the response. Several hundred showed up to help, Brown said.

And Providence officials already have met to discuss how they responded to the derailment.

Some takeaways:

  • Providence set up its DMCC, but Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM and Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup also set up their DMCC’s as well, which led to some and confusion, Brown said. “They weren’t as knowledgeable about the capabilities in Region 3,” she said.

Brown said she’d like to see Thurston and Pierce County DMCC’s drill together on disaster response.

  • A paging system alerted every Providence employee about the disaster, but they need to tailor the system so it doesn’t go out to that many people, including night shift workers who were asleep, she said.
  • Providence wanted the option to send less seriously injured patients to some of its walk-in clinics, but those phone numbers were not immediately known, Providence spokesman Chris Thomas said.
  • Staff on each floor of the hospital was asked to fill out a form that would help track number of staff and patients, but those forms were buried on the hospital intranet. They will now put those forms in an easier-to-find location, Thomas said.

Still, hospital officials were pleased with the overall response.

“We could not have asked for a better response,” Brown said.

Pam Montague, the hospital’s clinical manager, said people brought food and snacks to hospital staff.

“I was quite touched by the community’s response,” she said.

During the week, the hospital also fielded 50-100 media calls, including from Great Britain and Australia media as well as CNN and People Magazine, Thomas said.

Did the state play a role?

The state Military Department, which oversees the state’s emergency management division, activated the state’s emergency operation center after Gov. Jay Insleee declared a state of emergency Monday morning.

The agency was prepared to respond with additional resources – just as it does when there is a wildfire that crosses several counties – but those requests did not come in, said spokeswoman Karina Shagren. The multi-agency response likely had it covered, she said.

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