When Kevin McElroy joined his first ambulance squad as a teenager, he wanted to help people like his brother, who got patched up after a bike mishap by a teacher who volunteered on a Blairstown rescue crew.
Fast-forward 25 years to Tuesday: Kevin was pondering the blast range of bombs, the effects of shrapnel and how to triage mass numbers of casualties.
“This will happen eventually,” said Kevin, coordinator of emergency medical services for Atlantic Health Systems, at a Parsippany conference with the chillingly clinical title: Medical Preparedness and Response to Bombing Incidents.
Organized by the Morris County Office of Emergency Management and funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security, the two-day symposium reviewed hard-learned lessons from bombings at the Boston Marathon, the London subway and Israel, among other places.
“Every county has a disaster plan and does drills. They focus on common events like bus and plane crashes, and now, school shootings. But they don’t plan for bombings,” said John Rinard, who led the conference.
As a senior training specialist for the Texas Engineering Extension Service at Texas A&M University, he has given these seminars across the United States–including in Boston, in the years prior to April’s terror attack at the marathon.
Morris County wasted no time adjusting its game plan after that tragedy. County emergency management personnel were out in force at Morristown’s annual Verizon 5K in July. They had stocked up on military-strength tourniquets and bandages, and established elaborate triage plans. A big training exercise in Florham Park followed. Officials have paid close attention to the standoff with Syria, bracing for any repercussions.
Because you never know.
“We’re planning for worst-case scenarios. The worst scenario has happened, and could happen again,” said Jeff Paul, Morris County’s OEM director.
In his view, the most important element of this week’s conference was the broad range of emergency responders from across the county who networked in the OEM’s brand-new, fortress-like headquarters at the county’s public safety training complex.
Some 80 members of police, fire, rescue and haz-mat teams watched gruesome videos and engaged in role-playing exercises designed to ensure that everyone instinctively knows his or her mission at the chaotic scene of some future disaster or terror attack.
Jeff said the inter-agency communications extend all the way to emergency rooms of Morristown Medical Center; he has consulted with doctors about what type of compression bandages work best when time is of the essence.
Morris County Sheriff Ed Rochford even has assigned a team of specially trained officers to assist the OEM in caring for county first responders in crisis situations.
“People have to play well together, talk the same language, be on the same page,” John Rinard agreed.
On the plus side, federal laws have made it harder for the bad guys to obtain professional-grade explosives, said Rob Alpaugh, a sergeant who heads the Morris County Sheriff’s Office bomb squad. Now, he worries about simple home-made bombs cobbled together from Internet recipes.
That’s one reason why his squad takes every bomb threat with deadly seriousness.
“It’s not a question of ‘if it happens.’ It’s where, and when,” Rob said.
Kevin McElroy said his paramedics now must think not only about helping the injured–but also about preserving evidence.
An even tougher takeaway from the conference, he said, was remembering to remain wary at an attack scene. Rescue personnel rush to assist those in need… and terrorists know that.
“The expectation is that if there is one explosion, there is going to be two. And if there are two, there’s going to be three,” Kevin said.