By Sloane M. Perron, Manager of Marketing Communications

In June, the Anna Maria College campus was the scene of a full-scale, multi-agency disaster exercise coordinated by fellows and faculty from the Fellowship in Disaster Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital. A wide range of state agencies and local responders participated in the “real world” training simulation which included the Paxton Fire Department, West Boylston Fire Department, Worcester Fire Department, MedStar Ambulance, STAT Southcoast EMS, UMASS Life Flight, Massachusetts HazMat, MA State Police Special Emergency Response, and the Medical Reserve Corps.

Planning a Disaster

A drill of this magnitude that included various statewide agencies including the Town of Paxton Fire and Police Departments, took a lot of planning, according to Anna Maria College’s Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs for the School of Professional Studies Dr. Judy Kenary. Dr. Greg Ciottone, Medical Director of the Master’s in Health Emergency Management program at Anna Maria, is the Founding Director of the Fellowship in Disaster Medicine at BIDMC and an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

As part of the Health Emergency Management degree, there are two required simulations that students must attend. In the past these simulations consisted of “tabletop drills” in which students were given emergency disaster scenarios which they had to work through conversationally. However, five months ago the BIDMC fellows reached out to Dr. Kenary and expressed interest in conducting a full-scale drill at Anna Maria College.

What started out in concept as a simulated hazmat response quickly evolved into a scenario in which what appeared to be a routine town cookout became the target of an intentional terrorist attack. There was a simulated propane tank explosion, followed by simulated carfentanyl (a potent opioid) dropped from drones. As a result a mass casualty incident resulted which was simulated by professionally moulaged volunteers.

Originally planned for 60 participants, the drill grew in size in participants and complexity resulting in over 225 participants from local, state, and federal agencies with Paxton Fire Chief Mike Pingitore serving as incident commander. The guest agencies were all coordinated by the BIDMC fellows and Amalia Voskanyan, Co-Director of Fellowship in Disaster Medicine and Director of International Relations at Department of Emergency Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Meanwhile, Kenary oversaw coordination with Anna Maria. Delegations from the United Arab Emirates and France also observed the emergency response providing an international perspective.

“My theme has always been, there isn’t just one agency involved in a disaster response. There are professionals with different expertise and specialties. It’s paramedic, fire, you may have the Red Cross, you may have local paramedic groups. There’s more than one person or agency that shows up and that’s the beauty of our undergraduate major. We engage students in different majors, whether they are in nursing, health science, fire science, criminal justice, or social work. Eventually they may all work together based on a particular project or a major disaster, so the inter-disciplinary aspect is intentional,” she said.

“The Disaster Drill was an educational drill”, explained Dr. Ciottone , not a functional drill meaning that participants were not testing their ability to respond to this specific event, but instead were more focused on the planning process, learning objectives, and communication skills between agencies responding to a mass casualty event.

Kenary spoke about the positive impact that this drill had for Anna Maria students. She noted that these types of events provide “outdoor classroom” experiences, and something we at Anna Maria College thrive. Stakeholders in this type of event benefit from connecting the theory into practice yet at the same time integrate our community leaders at large. Creating the opportunity for our students to work side by side with State and Federal public safety leaders and state agencies is just one aspect of how Anna Maria College achieves our mission, involved in the community. The way I present the goals of Anna Maria College is by creating a visual, I ask that as you travel through a town or city’s main street, take notice of all the city or town resources, such as the hospitals, police and fire departments, businesses, schools, churches, behavioral health facilities, senior centers, home care agencies, these are just some of the professions Anna Maria College prepares for our communities. 

The Day Of

As an academic institution focused on community service, many of the first responder participants from local and state agencies were Anna Maria College alums.

Current students Marina Stoycheva ‘23 from Sofia, Bulgaria and Alexis Sansoucy ‘24 from Plymouth volunteered for the drill and gained hands-on learning experience directly from experts in emergency management. Stoycheva and Sansoucy were assigned to follow the physicians who were observing and critiquing the first responders’ actions. As the two students acted as scribes for the doctors, they were impressed with the simulation’s realism.

The volunteers were assigned specific injuries to act out. As a result, the two students had to help their physician mentors navigate through the fake explosion, drone attack, and affected bystander-actors. The students witnessed how medical professionals triage patients and make difficult life and death decisions during a mass casualty event.

Stoycheva is a Health Science major who has her eyes set on a future career as a surgeon. She is eager to learn all she can about medicine in order to help people and believes that the drill was an invaluable experience that further reinforced that health science is the right field for her.

“It was very exciting, I don’t know if that’s the wrong thing to say, but I was so excited for everything…,” Stoycheva said, “Watching first responders triage the volunteers playing wounded civilians was extraordinary. Responders moved quickly among the volunteers to assess their health status and then move on to see someone else. The question in your head is, ‘who needs to be seen first?’. I tried to put myself in the victim’s perspective because everyone thinks that their situation is more important. But realistically, you have to let responders do their job because they know who needs more assistance.”

Meanwhile, the Disaster Drill was so transformative for Sansoucy that she decided to change her major to Criminal Justice.

“When I was younger, I wanted to study criminal justice or become a police officer, but then I kind of gave up on that. And then after I volunteered at the drill it really sparked my interest in it again,” she said.

The “outdoor classroom” experience is something that both Stoycheva and Sansoucy prefer during their classes. Not only are hands-on opportunities like the drill fun, but they solidify theories and objectives that they learn in class. They also show the ripple effect that one individual can have on the lives of others.

“I would say my favorite part was when the exercise first began, because I feel like that’s probably when my adrenaline was at an all-time high and I got to follow the physicians around and see the patients and observe how different first responders interact together for the common goal of saving people,” Sansoucy said.

The End Result

Paxton Fire Chief Mike Pingitore 21’ and Paxton Police Sergeant Forrest Thorpe ‘05, ‘15G were part of the Disaster Drill beginning with the initial planning stages at Anna Maria College.

The distinction of this drill as an educational drill made the objectives of this exercise unique as Pingitore, who served as the on-scene incident commander for the first time in his career, explained. “A functional drill would be more along the lines of there’s a specific goal that we want to achieve and not fail at achieving, meanwhile this was education. We want to learn from all the mistakes and the missteps. The goal essentially, explained to us by Dr. Ciottone, was that we kind of want to fail. We want to drill to failure, because we want to figure out the shortcomings,” the Chief said.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Thorpe is Paxton Police Department’s liaison for Anna Maria College where Paxton PD provides security and safety. Thorpe assisted Pingitore with the planning and provided law enforcement coordination during the day of the simulation. He also provided investigation into what happened as the realistic simulation unfolded.

The “design to fail” concept was even demonstrated by the way Paxton police officers who were first on the scene interacted with the scenario as they pretended to collapse due to the fentanyl, which was actually sugar dropping from the drones. “It was designed to fail and trying to give the perspective of losing personnel on scene and how we handle things from there while still maintaining public safety,” Thorpe said.

Both departments learned a lot from the large-scale drill which brought in state and regional agencies and specialists that the town of Paxton does not interact with daily.

The opportunity to coordinate communication for so many different departments is a training experience that Pingitore was thankful for and one that he would be happy to participate in again.

While the mock explosion and drone attack is a highly unlikely mass casualty event, there were elements that the Paxton Fire and Police Departments can use to improve the everyday emergencies that they face in town.

“The biggest thing to take away especially, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but especially nowadays, is to train. Training is the only thing that is going to make you better. I told my team after that, yeah, this scenario is highly unlikely. But the exercise prepared them for a possible bus accident or mutual aid. It showed them how to triage and do the appropriate things. That’s what they are going to take away. And in a real incident, they are going to be able to handle it in a calm, collected, and well-trained manner,” Pingitore said. The BIDMC Fellows and Kenary are looking forward to next year’s drill…. stay tuned!