drill improved emergency preparedness

Mt. Lebanon is better prepared for any sort of natural or man-made disaster, as the result of last weekend’s emergency preparedness drill.  Coordinated by the Mt. Lebanon police and fire departments, the drill simulated a helicopter crash at Howe Elementary School in Sunset Hills, causing two fires and a partial building collapse.  Safety of the 350 children and staff in the school and the residents of the surrounding neighborhood would, of course, be the main concern in such an incident.  Municipal personnel along with the  school district, MRTSA, St. Clair Hospital, neighboring municipalities that provide our public safety agencies with mutual aid, Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church and the Salvation Army participated in the drill, which was reviewed and evaluated by Allegheny County.

On Friday, Howe School fifth graders and about 30 volunteer families participated in the evacuation of the school, which took fewer than three minutes, said Superintendent Tim Steinhauer, even though several stairwells were “blocked” by debris.  The students walked in a line with their teachers to the “reunification site,” Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church, where they remained until their parents could pick them up.  In a real event, the school district would use its emergency notification system to immediately notify  parents  of their children’s whereabouts.  This was the first time the school district had actually practiced an evacuation and reunification.

It is critical that children stay with  their classmates and proceed to the reunification site, no matter how much parents arriving on the scene may want to pull them out of line, pointed out Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Coleman McDonough, who has participated in an actual such incident in another community.  If hysterical and well-meaning parents take their children away, it is impossible for  teachers and emergency personnel to account for all and confirm their safety.

School District Communications Director Cissy Bowman agreed that the drill emphasized the need for coordination and accountability of students between the school, parents, emergency responders and the hospital.   The school district  learned a lot, she continued,  including some seemingly small things that could make a big difference, such as, ” teachers can keep a closer eye on their students if they walk behind the children instead of in front of them.”

On Saturday morning, several hundred public safety professionals and some resident volunteers simulated other portions of the event in real time, beginning with the crash of the unidentified helicopter at 9 a.m. at the school and ending with a “news conference” at noon at the public safety center.  Here was the scenario:  The helicopter crashed and burned, igniting two sizable fires and causing a partial building collapse.  A neighbor initially called 911, just about the same time the school’s alarm system activated.

First responders rushed to the scene, and police blocked off nearby streets.  A request went out to Castle Shannon, Dormont, Bethel and Upper St. Clair for mutual aide.  The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the public safety center was fully activated and the drill continued for three hours in real time.

On the scene, emergency personnel simulated extinguished the fire, evacuating all 350 students and staff members, transporting  nine injured people (eight students with minor abrasions and fractures and a teacher complaining of chest pains) to St. Clair Hospital. Initially five students were unaccounted for, but within half an hour emergency workers found all of them with parents/caregivers or at the hospital.

Howe students were “evacuated” to Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church.

The two fires were extinguished in under an hour; however, residents of Crystal Drive began complaining of a strong odor of jet fuel from the helicopter, which was running downhill from Broadmoor to the stream that runs parallel to Castle Shannon Boulevard.  Fourteen families were displaced from their homes as a result.

Meanwhile, at the EOC. Emergency Management Platoon Chief Chris Buttlar and Municipal Manager Steve Feller supervised representatives from the municipality, school district and hospital in  strategizing, collecting accurate information, answering media calls, dispelling rumors, preparing news releases, updating the website and calling agencies such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross to help  at the reunification site and provide temporary housing for the displaced families.  Rich Seiber, St. Clair Hospital’s communications director, was able to confirm the number and conditions of the victims, through direct calls to the hospital emergency department.

At the conclusion of the event, the emergency management team met in the fire department library to simulate a news conference, with volunteer  Katelynn Metz of Mt. Lebanon, a real television journalist, and Allegheny County  911 Director Rob McCafferty asking tough questions— some of which contained damaging misinformation.  Manager Feller read a brief statement, and then introduced the participants, who addressed the “reporters'”questions.  They were:  Superintendent  Steinhauer, Emergency Management Chief Buttlar, Police Chief McDonough, Fire Chief Nick Sohyda and  St. Clair Hospital’s Sieber.

In a real such event, the followup would include calling in the National Transportation Safety Board  to investigate the crash, and the fire department would initiate a major  haz-mat cleanup because of the fuel runoff into the stream.

Mt. Lebanon’s emergency management team has conducted drills before that incorporated various aspects of this scenario, but this was the first drill to involved the hospital and the school district on a large scale and the first time the joint communications concept (representatives from all participating principal agencies in the EOC) was employed.

Following the event,  more than 100 of the participants gathered in the fire department’s training room to review their performances and suggest ways of improving. Manager Feller deemed the drill a great success, as did McCafferty, who complimented Mt. Lebanon on its commitment to emergency management.  His main suggestion:  In this day and age, when national news agencies’ mobile vans will arrive on the scene within minutes, it might be a good idea to find a larger staging area for the news conference than the fire department’s small library—like an auditorium!

Letters went out to all residents of the immediate area prior to the drill and the public was informed via LeboALERT, www.mtlebanon.organd Facebook, so few people were alarmed by the plethora of public safety personnel and apparatus in the area.  Thanks to all residents for their cooperation.