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Medical response drill focuses on chemical exposure

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

It wasn't a movie, but a true-to-life drill at Jefferson Regional Medical Center early this month.

Hospital personnel and representatives from Jefferson Hills Area Ambulance Association, Brentwood EMS, Baldwin EMS, Elizabeth Township EMS and Jefferson Fire Department practiced for the aftermath of chemical exposure at one of the industrial plants.

This practice was meant to make recovery from an eventuality as close to perfect as it could be.

Joanne Cook, the hospital's emergency services specialist with more than 30 years of experience, led the efforts through the first drill of the year. This one had the medical staff responding to patient surges in the emergency department.

Expecting a cool spring afternoon, Cook chose to work with mannequins.

“With chemical exposure, patients need to be decontaminated,” she said. “With the cold, we didn't want hypothermic real victims.”

Each hospital drill replicates an emergency. Last year, medical and rescue personnel held an active shooter drill, a response to national events. Volunteers were the crisis victims. Three years ago, staff pretended that a plane had hit the hospital, so patients needed to be evacuated from one floor to another.

“These are all learning situations,” said Cook, of Brentwood and director of Brentwood EMS.

After a morning of in-house training, the two-hour drill began. Ambulances rolled in with their “patients,” and the decontamination process started. Cook, in the company of her emergency preparedness team, watched from nearby.

When all the patients had arrived and were assisted, the group gathered for a “hot wash,” an evaluation of what had gone well and what needed to be improved.

Bob Gibson, 55, assistant chief of the Jefferson Hills Area Ambulance Association, participated with a crew of four. With 34 years as a paramedic, Gibson recognizes the importance of cooperative efforts, such as these. It's all part of the continuing education that emergency personnel undergo.

“There's a command-post set up. Everyone has specific responsibilities and roles,” he said, “and a unified command system.”

Decisions go through the center and are communicated via county radios.

“No two scenarios are the same,” he said. “It's a real learning experience.”

Also having been a registered nurse for 18 years, the Westmoreland County resident saw the drill from both sides.

“It went very well. Hopefully, we don't have to use it.”

John Balkovec, operations supervisor of Brentwood EMS, has participated in every drill held at Jefferson hospital. He credits his father's 23-year career as an Allegheny County firefighter for his love of emergency medicine.

Born and raised in Brentwood, Balkovec, 43, has served the community for 24 years.

Emergency personnel were responsible for the first decontamination done with a bleach-and-water solution; then, hospital personnel repeated the procedure. What is important in a real-life situation is keeping track of the victims. Anyone who is not decontaminated can contaminate others.

Drills like these help all personnel find their footing in what would be a chaotic situation. But whether real or not, those who respond to crises do it for a number of reasons, including helping people. Undoubtedly, there's another fact about a responder's job.

“I guess we're just adrenalin junkies,” Gibson said. “We want to be where the action is.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5803 or

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