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Escambia County Confident About Mass Casuality Readiness

Escambia County

When a gunman opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas Sunday night, at least 58 people were killed and nearly 500 injured.  It was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history and overwhelmed first responders and hospitals in the area.

In the wake of the tragedy, WUWF sought to find out about local preparation and experience dealing in with a Mass Casualty Incident.

Credit NorthEscambia.com
An explosion occurs at the Escambia County Jail Central Booking Facility on April 30, 2014.

The most recent and largest such event in the Pensacola area was on April 30, 2014, when two people were killed and scores injured following an explosion in the flooded basement of the Escambia County Jail Central Booking Facility.

“After the incident, our personnel arrived and the occupants of 600 prisoners and staff were rapidly trying to evacuate the building,” said Escambia County Public Safety Director Mike Weaver in a media briefing three-and-a-half years ago, detailing what first responders encountered in those initial minutes after the blast. He continued.

“At that time, our personnel had to step up and do rapid triage and during that time we transported and treated 184 victims, which were transported between the five local hospitals between the two counties.”

Weaver started his career as a Navy Corpsman, working out of NAS Pensacola for a time, and he’s held various jobs during his 28 years with Escambia County. He says from the beginning of such mass emergencies, it’s a carefully coordinated effort.

“So, with that is our responders coming up with the numbers, either red, yellow, green or black…they will then give those numbers with our dispatch centers who will be in communication with our hospitals, finding out what they can take at that time.

And, when a mass casualty incident – or MCI - occurs, each of the hospitals have a plan (and checklist) for dealing with the surge in patients.

“Very commonly, they’ll start shutting down their operating rooms for any elective type surgeries, so that those rooms are available,” Weaver said, noting that all three hospitals in Pensacola are communicating with Escambia County dispatch and with each other about their capabilities at that time.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Sacred Heart Hospital has a Level II Trauma Center.

“That is correct. Also, some of them share physicians. Some physicians have admission rights at both hospitals, so they’re all in communication about that.”

Locally, the closest Level I trauma center, with surgeons and emergency staff on duty 24 hours a day, is USA Medical Center in Mobile. In Pensacola, Sacred Heart and Baptist hospitals have Level II trauma centers, with surgeons on call and available within 20 minutes.

After the 2014 explosion, Weaver says they conducted an incident debriefing to discuss what went well and where improvements were needed. He points out that the event involving the jail was different from any they had dealt with before.

“Not only were these patients, but you also had to make sure control was maintained on them,” said Weaver, also pointing out that the response was carried out in darkness.

And, unlike Las Vegas, where victims scattered and were taking themselves to hospitals, Weaver says Pensacola’s incident response team knew how many people were in the jail and were able to keep track of them.

“So, like I said at the beginning, when our dispatch is telling us ‘you can take ‘X amount’ to Sacred Heart and ‘X amount’ to Baptist, they (Vegas) may just have somebody pull up with a pickup truck with four people because it’s taking a while for the ambulance to do them.”

The result is the hospital becomes overwhelmed.

Credit Escambia County
Escambia County
Escambia County Mobile Command Center.

Having your system overwhelmed is the primary basis for a mass casualty incident. The state of Florida classifies both the jail explosion and the Las Vegas shooting as Level 4, involving between 101 and 1,000 patients.

Level one involves at least five patients. But, Weaver says three can be a lot for some communities, so it’s all relative.

“And depending on the community or what may be going on, an MCI with a level of five (that’s five total victims) can be quite overwhelming. If you only have one ambulance in your town or hospitals are already at maximum capacity that can be a significant event, is as significant an event to any community as what has just happened in Las Vegas.”

Escambia emergency and law enforcement officials conduct training on a regular basis, including their annual hurricane and airport disaster exercises, as well as active shooter and Incident Command System training. As for the area’s readiness for a mass casualty incident, Weaver says he believes they can handle it.

“I wouldn’t want to say we’re ready for it. It will be overwhelming. It will take time to care for the patients. But, also, in my time here, I’ve seen what this community can do.”