About a month before a truck crashed into an Amtrak train outside of Fallon, killing six people, emergency responders in Churchill County staged a mass-casualty drill at Churchill County High School to help hone the skills and coordination efforts of local, regional, state and federal agencies.
Officials dubbed the plan Operation ARCO (Aircraft Mishap Full Scale Joint Exercise.) Here's the scenario: A large plane crashes near the high school, causing casualties and forcing students and teachers at two schools to evacuate.
The Navy brought its crash team (and provided the burning airplane.) Drama students from the high school played the victims, complete with blood, and life-like injuries created with stage makeup.
"We had the integration of the Navy base, the hospitals, the school system, county, city, law enforcement, fire, volunteers," says Steve Endacott, who is the City of Fallon's Emergency Manager. "Everybody had a piece of this excercise, he added."
Everyone from the Red Cross to Care Flight was invited to participate. Agencies from Reno, Churchill County, the state of Nevada and NAS Fallon wanted to join in. "So we asked, 'Whose fire department's going to respond?' And the base said they wanted to. 'So okay, we'll show up too, with the county stuff, but we'll let you put the fire out and we'll take if from there,'" Endacott said, describing the planning process.
Each agency had training objectives to accomplish. "I raised my hand and said I need a hazardous materials exercise, so let's make sure there's a big fuel spill in here," said Endacott, explaining what the City of Fallon needed to practice.
Operation ARCO was created to fulfill the training requirements for multiple agencies in one consolidated exercise. It tested communications, integration of emergency teams– and their ability to respond, fight the fire, evacuate the students and treat and transport patients. It tested the Churchill County School District's ability to account for students and notify parents, and it tested the ability of the Churchill County Coroner's office to handle to a large number of victims.
Fast forward to the Amtrak crash, six weeks later, when emergency responders faced the real thing. "It was a almost a carbon copy stamp of that scenario," said Endacott. "We had a large amount of people, we had casualties; we had to integrate the the Navy base– the same helicopters– the Care Flight, the same helicopters from the excercise."
Community leaders say that drill helped volunteers and professionals as they rushed to assist the victims and survirors of the train crash. "It was not like we had to tell anyone what to do. Everyone went 'I know what I'm supposed to do,'" Endacott said.
The hard work of constructing and executing Operation ARCO seems to have paid off. Endacott describes a scene in the shelter, where passengers from the Amtrak train were given food, water, cots and phone lines to call loved ones . "The best measure is when more than one of the survivors came up and just randomly started shaking hands with the volunteers and me personally and just saying 'this was incredible, who are you people?' And 'Thank you for everything you've done.' If they were taken care of, you've done your job," said Endacott, smiling.
He continued, "I think it just happened to be coincidence that we just rallied our forces recently to where everybody knew what they were going to do."
"I think it's just one of those things that you don't know what you've got until it happens and then people rise to the occasion. It was our opportunity to rise to the occasion."