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Earthquake Exercise keeps the Pressure on at Naval Hospital Bremerton

Image of Military personnel during an annual earthquake response exercise. 1011 - Triage, treat and decontaminate… Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Letesa Espina, assigned to Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Bremerton, and part of the command’s Decontamination team, cares for a mock victim potentially exposed to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and/or high explosive agent(s) during Operation Black Wind, an annual earthquake response exercise held July 15, 2021, to assess how to cope and contend with a tremor and the possible hazards, potential casualties and probable aftershocks (Official Navy photo by Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton public affairs officer).

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Sitting astride a sizable fault line dissecting Puget Sound, Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) continues to prepare - structurally, organizationally, and now with and without pressure - to respond to any seismic activity impacting the area.

In conjunction with Citadel Rumble, an annual earthquake response exercise for Navy commands in the Pacific Northwest, NHB held Operation Black Wind to assess how to cope and contend with a tremor and the possible hazards, potential casualties and probable aftershocks, July 15, 2021.

"Based on our current hazard vulnerability assessment, an earthquake is one of the most likely significant disasters to happen. This training scenario tests our response capabilities," said Terry Lerma, NHB medical treatment facility emergency manager. "Holding this exercise keeps us from being complacent, helps improve our muscle and mind memory to respond quickly, and we also get to work with our community partners and other first responders."

The scenario for Operation Black Wind unfolded with a sudden and significant seismic event occurring in the early summer afternoon.

The earthquake, and resultant shock-wave, lasted approximately one minute. Staff, as well as patients and visitors, were immediately informed to "drop, cover and hold" until the "all clear" announcement was made.

Coincidentally - and just as unexpectedly - a number of active duty staff members suddenly became ill, possibly due to an overturned tanker truck transporting hazardous material on nearby State Highway 3, which spilled content on the immediate environment.

The sickened Sailors were at the command fitness facility and began complaining of respiratory difficulties, blurred vision, headaches and nausea.

"We had 12 Sailors exposed to some unknown natural or manmade liquid, solid, vapor, or gas. A hazardous material - HAZMAT - spill is dangerous. Once released from whatever and wherever, it is known to cause sickness, even possible death to humans and other animals, as well as damage the environment," Lerma said.

Past earthquakes exercises were scripted to develop teachable skills in handling such potential scenarios from mass casualty inbound to mass evacuation outbound. This time around, a unique twist was thrown into the mix. NHB's decontamination (DECON) team was activated to treat those exposed to the HAZMAT contaminant(s).

"It's imperative that protective measures and proper decontamination of patients exposed to chemical or biological agents occurs to safeguard them and avoid the risk of contaminating and exposing others," Lerma stressed.

The DECON team is responsible to triage, treat, and decontaminate actual and/or potential victims exposed to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and/or high explosive agents before they can enter the hospital. They do that by deploying the portable decontamination system, a specifically designed portable shower tent constructed along the lines of the assembly line principle. A suspected contaminated person enters one end and is taken through a series of cleaning and decontamination steps before coming out the other side.

"We have approximately 60 trained personnel on our DECON team, which give us the capability to set up and operate two systems, simultaneously if needed, to completely decontaminate patients exposed to a chemical, biological or radiological agent," explained Lerma. "Once the word was passed to activate, they are charged with getting to our DECON site, getting dressed in the hazardous waste operator suit, and setting up the DECON system. Our goal is to always be ready within 10 to 15 minutes when such an emergency arises to provide that vital layer of protection for the hospital and staff, and care for the patient."

During this exercise, when the DECON team set up their systems with the shower tent to begin the process of caring for the mock victims, there was no water. The well was dry.

The hydrant (water) pressure on the compound had been lost due to the quake.

"No disaster ever goes according to plan. We wanted to test our team on how they dealt with this. Did they know to contact the incident commander and/or command duty officer to inform them of the catastrophic loss of water pressure? They did just that," commented Lerma.

Navy Region Northwest Fire Department arrived on scene with Engine 63 to provide the needed water supply for the DECON team needs. There was approximately 750 gallons readily available.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time, at least at Navy Medicine commands, to have a fire engine pump hundreds of gallons of water to a DECON team to use in helping decontaminate patients. The cooperation and support from the Region fire department was integral and vital for success. We also got to determine how long the water supply lasted, and when to request additional support to replenish that fire engine from another source," said Lerma.

Along with the Sailors exposed to some unknown HAZMAT agent, initial reports from the Rapid Emergency Action Plan team, comprised of Facilities department staff, also showed some structural damage. They also ensured that backup generator power was available if needed.

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