Julia Terruso, Inquirer Staff Writer
As they screamed for help, and wailed of burning skin and blurry vision, the “victims” sprawled on the pavement outside SEPTA’s AT&T station exchanged introductions, bashful smiles, and comments on the heat.
An explosion underground. A toxic chemical exposure. A chaotic stampede of escape, and victims everywhere. None of it real.
Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) practiced Wednesday its response to a scripted bioterror mass-casualty event at the sports complex. The agency mobilized about 150 emergency, police, and fire personnel in a drill set during a fictional Zac Brown Band concert and a Phillies game.
The exercise, one in an ongoing series, is the agency’s final role-play of this scale before Pope Francis visits – and as many as 1.5 million people crowd Center City – the weekend of Sept. 26.
The pope’s visit is considered a National Special Security Event. The drill involved all local law enforcement, though all security preparations for the papal visit are being managed by the Secret Service.
Wednesday’s exercise began with an emergency call to SEPTA police reporting an explosion and the release of a chemical substance below ground.
About 75 volunteers from the Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps, Delaware County Medical Reserve Corps, and American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania played the parts of the “victims,” who – safely – stampeded away from a strange cylindrical contraption emitting the unknown contaminant. Students from local universities also played victims.
They rolled on the pavement, many yelling out, “It burns my eyes!” and “It smells so bad!”, before describing their injuries to responders in hazmat suits.
Based on their injury reports, the volunteer victims were triaged – green for least serious, yellow for moderate, red for the most critical.
Everyone exposed to the fake toxin then had to go through the first round of decontamination by walking through a deluge of water streaming from two fire trucks. There were few complaints about that step on the 90-degree day.
In a real event, decontamination would then continue, with all exposed victims removing all of their clothes, and jewelry and handing over any phones or personal items.
Because of the scorching temperatures, the OEM considered rescheduling – but with two months until Francis arrives, opted to proceed.
“It’s important we continue to move forward with these training exercises to be ready to respond,” said OEM director Samantha Phillips. “It’s going to make us even more prepared for the papal visit.”
Phillips said the exercise tested two city plans – how to decontaminate a large number of victims, and how to triage at and respond to a mass-casualty event.
“The development of a mass-casualty exercise with decontamination activities has been in the works for nearly a year,” Phillips said in a statement. “However, lessons learned from the recent Amtrak derailment made us look closer at how we enhance the way we respond to an incident. So, in addition to testing mass-decon activities, we purposely included activities that will help us efficiently stage hundreds of first responders, numerous emergency vehicles, and specialized equipment when they arrive on scene.”
Phillips participated in the drill as a victim.
“I wanted to understand what the public would experience as they saw their first responders, in what can seem like intimidating gear – full masks – heading toward them,” she said.
Despite the friendly atmosphere – many of her colleagues took pictures of her coming through the contamination tents – Phillips noted the seriousness of the exercise.
“This is all for public safety; it’s not for fun,” she said. “It’s really to make sure we’re taking care of people.”
Fred Henretig, a physician who attended the fake emergency, said preparing for the catastrophic is important, but noted the smaller emergencies hospitals are preparing to handle during the papal visit. Henretig is director of the toxicology unit at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“With so many people traveling, there are many who could already be coming here sick, hoping for a blessing from the pope,” he said. “They may be coming with medications and have problems stemming from that – Grandpa takes two of his pills instead of one,” he suggested.