The St. Thomas/St. John district 911 emergency line is not up to par and while many Love City residents have complained about that for some time, local and federal officials had clear evidence of the problem on Thrusday, December 13.
During a Department of Homeland Security orchestrated mass decontamination exercise at the Enighed Pond Marine Facility, long delays by first responders was initially blamed on problems getting through to the 911 Emergency line.
“The response was slow from 911,” said Mel Vanterpool, the V.I. Director of the Department of Homeland Security. “There was a problem with information being passed on. We will do some more training with the operators and make sure that everyone is on speed.”
The emergency scenario placed 18 students on a school bus at the pond nearby a boat which exploded a weapon of mass destruction dirty bomb. The students, who were Charlotte Amalie High School Junior ROTC members, acted as victims contaminated by radioactive material from the bomb.
First Response Times Checked
The multiple casualties exercise tested the response times of a number of agencies including the V.I. Fire Service, V.I. Police Department, Department of Health, St. John Rescue, EMS, Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the U.S. National Guard’s 23 Civil Support Team.
A Customs and Border Protection agent at the pond made the first call to 911 at around 9:40 a.m. The agent, however, didn’t get transferred to a first response agency for almost five minutes because she was placed on hold at least four times.
Members of the St. John Fire Service, who arrived about 10 minutes after they got the call at 9:55, were the first on the scene and concentrated on decontaminating the area and moving victims to a safe location.
EMS, St. John Rescue
EMS and St. John Rescue officials were next on the scene, arriving around 10:15 a.m. VIPD officers showed up around the same time and helped divert traffic outside of the hypothetically contaminated area.
St. John Rescue and EMS officials transported the victims to the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center and the R.L. Schneider Regional Hospital on St. Thomas for treatment, testing the two closest emergency care centers’ responses as well.
The second response came from the V.I. National Guard’s Civil Support Team which set up a decontamination station and analyzed the radioactive material from the dirty bomb.
Delays Common with Exercises
While to onlookers it seemed to take ages for personnel to arrive on the scene, slow response is not uncommon during these types of exercises, explained Kyle Olson, president of the Olson Group, the Homeland Security-contracted exercise vendor.
“One thing we’re seeing is during these exercises response times tend to be at a slower pace than in real life,” said Olson. “When you are practicing procedures, that sense of life and death urgency just isn’t there. Responders are moving rather significantly slower than they would in real life because they are trying to do it right.”
“That is why you exercise,” Olson added.
The government-contractor rated the response times of the Fire Service, St. John Rescue and EMS as “good.”
“They must make sure of their own safety first, because if they get contaminated they can’t help the victims,” said Olson. “That explains
some of why the times are significantly dealyed. But overall their response was good.”
The exercise was designed to test a number of factors, explained Vanterpool.
Testing Agency Capabilities
“We’re checking the mass decontamination capabilities of both the MKSCHC and R.L. Schneider Regional,” Vanterpool said. “We’re testing the tactical communication capabilities of V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and the command and control element of St. Thomas and St. John.”
“We’re also looking at the first responder response time capabilities to a WMD,” continued the local director of Homeland Security. “Last we are testing the capabilities of the 23rd Civil Support Team of the National Guard to respond to a WMD and do an analyzation and evaluation of the radioactivity.”
The U.S. National Guard’s Director of Domestic Operations Major General T.J Wright was even on hand to oversee the exercise.
“I’m here to assess what the V.I. needs are,” said Wright. “If there was an incident and I was called, I could better know what the needs are here.”
The Adjutant General for the V.I. National Guard, Major Renaldo Rivera, whose position includes overseeing the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, also assessed the exercise.
The exercise highlighted areas which need work in the territory’s emergency response, which is why these types of operations are conducted in the first place, Vanterpool added.
“Everything is going OK,” said Vanterpool. “Initially I wanted things to go faster, but that is the reason we do these exercises. National Incident Management System is what drives all of our training.”
“From natural disasters to WMD incidents, we are always looking for a better management system,” Vanterpool said.