Emergency practice

Training scenarios prepare officials for terrorist attacks and other disasters
Friday, May 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:44 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Outside at the Boone County Fairgrounds, patients are wheeled to military-issue emergency tents on camouflage-colored stretchers. The skin of many has turned bright red, and blisters are stuck to faces, arms and legs. One of the most vivid cases, recalls Chris Babich, the noncommissioned officer in charge of triage, was a 14-year-old burn victim who began a high-pitched screaming as she was carried in.

The girl and the other patients are actors, volunteers working with the National Guard and local emergency agencies. Their injuries are created by Staff Sgt. Yaneth Alvarez and a team of impromptu make-up artists who use chicken bones, wax and Vaseline to make injuries appear realistic.

About 500 people from more than a dozen local and state agencies are participating this week in emergency training scenarios meant to simulate what might happen following a terrorist attack or other disaster.

Missouri is the first state to host such a large regional event. National Guard units from Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa are training here, representing Region VII of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Col. John Owens, exercise director.

Several Boone County and Columbia agencies are represented, including the Boone County Fire District, Columbia/Boone County Health Department and Columbia/Boone County Emergency Management.

The point is to train local and state agencies who would work together during an emergency, streamlining cooperation and uncovering potential problems.

Owens said preparations for the event began in earnest about a year ago. Boone County was the chosen site because of Missouri’s up-to-date methods and history in terrorism response training, said Lt Col. Theresa Votinelli, event planner.

The exercise marks the first time guardsmen and women can earn expeditionary medical system certification without traveling to Michigan, Votinelli said. The idea is to start certifying in all FEMA regions, she said, but added that the Midwest was ahead of most in securing resources and preparing for such training exercises.

Babich is in charge of sorting patients that come to the six-tent military hospital described as a “modern-day MASH” by Thomas Mechanick, the Air Force Medical Evaluation Support Activity representative who brought the equipment from Fort Detrick, Md.

Patient tags are color-coded, with green meaning least critical and black severely critical or dead, said Babich. The Boone County paramedic said this is just the latest of many life-based exercises he’s participated in with the Missouri National Guard. The hospital tent he ushers patients into is the same now seen in Iraq and in floods or other homeland disasters.

The military also is using the exercise as an opportunity to test new technology, including speech-to-speech language translators and a patient tracking system linking cell phone lasers that scan patient ID bar codes to computers.

Feedback from the exercise will help determine if the translators would be useful in field operations, said Jery White, lead analyst for the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center. Two similar devices translate Mandarin/Chinese or Pashto, spoken in the Pakistan/Afghanistan region, he said.

Training exercises began Thursday and will continue through Saturday.

Most take place at the Missouri National Guard Armory, the Boone County Fairgrounds and the Columbia Regional Airport. Residents may notice increased emergency traffic, smoke, and low-flying aircraft in these areas through Saturday.

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