The 'patients' immediately got into character when the alarm went off. Many were yelling for staff and others were passing out after attempting to stand.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — This is just a test of the emergency response system.
One man died during a fire at Berkshire Health Center's Central County Dialysis Center on Thursday evening and 17 others were taken to the hospital. Shortly after 7 p.m., the fire alarm went off at the center with 18 patients in the midst of treatment.
Staff had to quickly unhook the panicked and immobile patients from the machines and one by one get them out of harm's way.
Police closed of Conte Drive, firefighters ran hoses to combat the fire, and County and Action Ambulance tag teamed treating and transporting the patients to the hospital until a Kimball Farms bus arrived to transport a large group at once.
One man "died" — apparently from being cut by an ax, which didn't really fit the narrative but whatever — while the rest were treated on scene.
That story could be more tragic. Or it could be happier. Local emergency responders are shooting for the latter.
The event on Thursday didn't really happen but should something similar occur, the local agencies want things to run as smoothly as possible. That's why they get together to plan and execute live action exercises at least once a year. The staff for each agency act like it is real and evaluators take careful notes of what's happening. Next week, the evaluators for all agencies will meet back up to discuss.
"It is certainly to prepare the hospital and other emergency agencies in the event that an incident like this really did happen in the community but, equally important, it is a learning event. You do drills with the intention of knowing there will be some lessons learned. It is not going to be perfect and that's expected. We learn from these and if a real incident happens we can incorporate the changes," Berkshire Medical Center spokesman Michael Leary said.
The renal dialysis center had only opened in February and Berkshire Health System initiated the conversation about hosting the exercise there to give staff practice with getting a large number of patients out. Emergency responders hold a similar event every year with different scenarios. Last year, the organizations got together and practiced on a made up explosion at Berkshire Gas.
"The big factor here is that the staff for the dialysis center, this is a new building. They've only been here a few months. They were wondering can we get everybody out of here. They were the ones who initiated this," Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Robert Czerwinski said.
"All of the patients were evacuated from the building before the Fire Department arrived on the scene, that was really good. Within three minutes of the alarm going off, they had the patients outside. Within nine minutes of the alarm, they had everybody outside. A fire can grow exponentially in that short period of time."
Czerwinski served as one of the evaluators. Notebook in hand, Czerwinski had marked to the minute when certain milestones were reached. Meanwhile, he kept his eyes on his deputy chief, watching and listening to the decisions he was making.
Thursday's incident put the Fire Department, Berkshire Health Systems, and the ambulance services jointly in command.
"By practicing this and understanding what our roles are, what fire command has to do, what EMS command has to do, what police command has to do, and how they are going to coordinate their effort so that everybody is doing the job they are expected to do," Czerwinski said.
County Ambulance President Brian Andrews had his own notebook and doing the same as Czerwinski. He was watching how paramedics triaged the patients and how they interacted with the fire commanders.
"I'm keeping notes and assessing the order we are doing things and at what time. We will come up with a report that said we could do better with this, we did great with this," Andrews said.
Andrews particularly kept an eye on the communication, which is routinely cited during such exercises as being problematic.
"Exercises are the time to meet each other if you don't know each other already and practice these things so it becomes second nature. When the real one happens, you've already practiced it and it rolls out the right way," Andrews said.
"What we are exercising tonight applies to a lot of different things we could be confronted with."
The Police Department had both the most limited role in Thursday's exercise and an actual role.
"Our role is really perimeter security to make sure that nobody who doesn't need to be here to resolve the situation isn't here and traffic control. Beyond that it is to assist the Fire Department and EMS in any way we can," Police Chief Michael Wynn said.
Some of the actors were asked to fall out of the chairs just to see how the staff members would respond.
The Police Department had put up an actual traffic block at the bottom of Conte Drive. Wynn had also brought two members of his command staff there to be part of it. While the police have a minor role in the incident thought up for Thursday, there are other occasions — and other exercises — where police are placed in a command role.
"This is a perfect demonstration of when multiple agencies are going to have to come together to perform what we call unified command, which is when have to establish a command element that has a representative from multiple disciplines," Wynn said. "For us, it is good to see them work, observe their decision-making process."
About an hour after the fire alarm went off, nearly all of the patients — staff and family of BHS employees — were either on the bus or an ambulance. The man who died stood up and hopped on the bus because his car was parked at the hospital.
And at Berkshire Medical Center, the paramedics were taking it to the next step and working on their communication and teamwork with the Emergency Department staff. The multiple evaluators will meet up next Friday to talk about the pros and the cons and identified what needs to be better.
pittsfield.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue. Name-calling, personal attacks, libel, slander or foul language is not allowed. All comments are reviewed before posting and will be deleted or edited as necessary.