We criticize reality shows because they seem to over dramatize reality. As we watch these shows, we truly believe there is no way that is how things really happen in that person’s life. While it may seem peculiar to compare reality shows to disaster exercises, I have participated in or conducted numerous exercises over the past 20 years and have heard similar criticism, such as “That just couldn’t happen HERE,” or “Come on, things don’t happen like that in real life.”
Have you ever questioned whether an exercise needs to be more realistic to test your organization’s “real” response capabilities? I understand those who believe the exercises need to be more realistic, but what should we do when the most unrealistic scenarios become reality? Let’s look at a few real world examples.
July 19, 1989: Sioux City, Iowa
In 1987, the Sioux Gateway Airport personnel held a disaster drill in which they pretended a wide-body aircraft crashed on a closed runway with 150 survivors, even though the airport didn’t serve wide-body jets. The drill’s After Action Report identified short-comings including the fact that, if there were 150 survivors, the airport would not have enough support equipment. Following the exercise, the airport directors reached out to the surrounding community to make sure the airport would have enough support in case a scenario like the one they prepared for ever took place.
Two years later, at approximately 3:15 p.m. on July 19, UA Flight 232’s tail-mounted engine fan disk disintegrated and the pieces penetrated the Douglas Aircraft DC 10’s tail section rupturing the hydraulic lines supporting the control systems of the aircraft. Without any of the systems normally used to control a plane, the flight crew not only managed to keep the plane airborne for 45 minutes, but somehow maneuvered it into a final approach at the Sioux Gateway Airport. Unfortunately, with no way to control its rate of descent, the plane slammed onto the field, broke apart, and the entire hulk slid down the runway into a neighboring a corn field. Miraculously, 184 of the 296 individuals on board survived the crash.
March 1-2, 2007: Americus & Atlanta, Ga.
At approximately 9:25 p.m. on March 1, 2007 an EF-3 tornado erupted out of the clouds and struck the City of Americus causing $100 million in damages to Sumter Regional Hospital. The 143-bed, acute-care hospital was completely destroyed. At the time the tornado struck, the hospital had 70 inpatients.
The Georgia Division of Public Health’s Hospital Preparedness program was notified of the situation by 9:45 p.m. and immediately started working with other hospitals in southwest Georgia to find beds for each patient. By 1:30 a.m. the evacuation of Sumter Regional Hospital was complete.
At 5:38 a.m. on March 2, 2007, a chartered motor coach carrying 33 members of the Bluffton University baseball team was traveling southbound in a left-hand HOV lane of I-75 in the Atlanta metropolitan area. The driver mistakenly entered a left HOV-only exit ramp that led upward to a T-junction marked by a stop sign. The bus, traveling at highway speed, was unable to stop or turn, sliding sideways into a concrete bridge wall and chain-link security fence. The bus fell 19 feet, landing on the Interstate highway below.
Even though the Georgia Division of Public Health’s Emergency Operations Center was fully open and still very actively engaged in supporting response efforts in Americus, it now had to respond to a mass casualty incident 150 miles distant, coordinating with a different set of responders and hospitals.
The division’s EOC is located within the headquarter building in the heart of downtown Atlanta, a relatively quiet area at 6:30 a.m. However, as personnel arrived at the EOC that day to work the day shift, the street in front of the headquarters was blocked by police and fire emergency vehicles. In an unrelated incident, a passerby suffered a heart attack and collapsed almost in front of the main doors to the building. This delay was a significant hindrance to the continual response to both incidents.
Moral of the Story
How unlikely are the scenarios just described? The answer is extremely unlikely, but the reality is that they both happened.
Drills and exercises are designed to evaluate our plans, to identify weaknesses and to generate improvements in our overall readiness. Sometimes the scenarios may seem a bit contrived or unrealistic, but disaster can’t be predicted with certainty and being prepared for those scenarios can save lives. So next time you are going through an unrealistic exercise, remember that it never hurts to be prepared.