Mont. Plant Blast Showcased Need for Disaster Protocols

When the incident happened, agencies were prepared.


July 08--If disaster strikes in the Flathead Valley, local emergency services are prepared for just about any scenario.

This played out on a grand scale on June 10 when explosions and a fire hit the Plum Creek medium density fiberboard plant in Columbia Falls. Hospitals, fire departments and law enforcement agencies prepared for the worst.

Preparations for a potential mass casualty event were set in motion, although it turned out the 68 workers inside the seven-acre plant made it out unscathed.

At the time, Joe Grabowski, the emergency preparedness coordinator at North Valley Hospital, was at his semi-annual preparedness meeting in Missoula with his Kalispell Regional Medical Center counterpart Bill Boyd and most of the rest of Montana's disaster preparation personnel.

"We take a lot of precautions to make sure no one person is indispensable," Grabowski said.

Jason Spring, chief executive officer of North Valley Hospital, said an administrator is always on call at the hospital and the leadership is trained accordingly.

"Everyone on our senior leadership team is drilled to take turns in different roles," he said. "It was impressive to watch our team prepare, all along the continuum. There was not a one of us who wouldn't have been touched by a disaster at Plum Creek, but they were all so levelheaded."

Spring was picking up his children from school when he received the call to come back to the hospital. According to the post-incident report, dozens of doctors and nurses who weren't working that day came to the hospital ready to help out.

Grabowski said that by 3:30 p.m., the incident command structure was established. Earlier in the spring, numerous agencies -- including both Flathead Valley hospitals -- practiced a disaster drill at Glacier Park International Airport. A large plane crash with scores of casualties was simulated on the tarmac.

While helpful, the exercises aren't the real deal and doubts existed before the Plum Creek fire.

"Exercises are hard to put yourself in the same frame of mind as an emergency," Grabowski said. "But our employees were calm, deliberate and professional. The clinical people do this kind of stuff every day, but for the rest of us, training and exercises give us a sense of confidence."

North Valley Hospital has an incident command system it uses in training and real-world exercises. Four branches of command -- operations, planning, logistics and finance -- are overseen by a leadership branch including an incident commander, public information officer, safety officer and medical specialist.

During the June 10 incident, a liaison was dispatched to Kalispell Regional Medical Center along with a former Plum Creek employee to the scene of the fire. These two allowed North Valley to communicate rapidly with other emergency services and first responders on the scene in Columbia Falls.

By 3:40 p.m., triage was set up and the hospital was preparing for the first casualties. Medical personnel who arrived on the scene after the initial call came in were ready to be utilized wherever they were needed most.

For Grabowski -- stuck in Missoula and following the incident from afar -- the feeling he couldn't do much was disappointing.

"When I heard about the event in Missoula, that was a really shallow feeling," he said. "But when you've committed to working at a hospital, you've signed on to a higher calling. There may come a day when the unthinkable happens, and you have to trust those around you and get to work."

North Valley Hospital routinely runs both internal and external emergency drills, preparing staffers for just about any eventuality.

Federal grant money is available to hospitals and other agencies, and North Valley happily accepts what it can take, but according to Spring, the costs the hospital must front for drills are significant.

"There is no reimbursement and activating doctors who would not otherwise be working, there is a real cost to it." he said. "But as a not-for-profit hospital, we see it as one of our key duties to our community."

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