What a disaster!

Volunteers got to hone their firefighting skills Tuesday during a drill exercise when a house on Crickett Lane off Goss Lake Road was partially burned for the training session. - Gayle Saran / staff photo
Volunteers got to hone their firefighting skills Tuesday during a drill exercise when a house on Crickett Lane off Goss Lake Road was partially burned for the training session.
— image credit: Gayle Saran / staff photo


Staff reporter

South Whidbey firefighters mettle and skills were tested Tuesday night during a drill that included car wrecks, fires and industrial accidents.

Just in case this ever happens at the same time, Fire District 3 will be ready. Tuesday’s event, called the Mass Causality Incident (MCI) is an annual training exercise designed to push the limits for volunteer firefighters with Island County Fire District 3.

This year’s MCI included five different mock disasters, all of which occurred within five minutes of each other.

The MCI was set up by Lt. Jerry Beck, the district’s fire prevention officer. It’s no small task to set up five emergency sites, which this year included an overturned vehicle, an actual burning house, a smoke-filled room and a man injured when an car collapsed on his legs.

Nearly 80 firefighters participated with 56 volunteers acting as observers and control personnel. There were also 18 “victims,” mostly high school students students who spent the better part of the day getting made up to look injured or dead.

The on-the-job training tests the different skills firefighters use in emergency service.

Prior to the event, firefighters are told they will be called out on training exercises, but not where or what kind.

District volunteers passed with flying colors as far as Beck is concerned.

“Our district’s firefighters are well-trained,” Beck said.

The drill began at 6:30 p.m. with the first emergency, a fire at the Baby Island clubhouse. Another call, this one concerning a car accident involving three firefighters on their way to the first call, was the next distraction. Three other calls sent firefighters to a house fire in Freeland, a heart attack at Lone Lake and an industrial accident at a Clinton tire store. All of South Whidbey’s five fire stations responded to the drill calls.

The reason for several scenarios instead of just one, according to Beck, is to challenge the firefighters beyond what they normally do in the course of their work.

“They know what to do at an accident scene or at a house fire, but if several things are going on at once it tests the entire district, including the volunteer command staff. Everyone had to exercise some decision-making skills,” Beck said.

All five simulated emergencies were responded to and under control in 96 minutes, including transporting the victims to the hospital, Beck said.

The district budgets $4,000 a year for the training event. Beck said this year’s event cost about $2,000.

“That’s an awesome amount of training for a nominal amount of money,” Beck said.

None of the district’s paid staff participated in the event.

Adding to the realism of the event, the 18 victims were made-up with phony injuries and stick-on wounds. They were transported by ambulance to Whidbey General Hospital, and then driven back to the main drill site at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.

Information from the controllers and photographers at the scene will be used to critique different aspects of each event.

Beck said the critique allows FD3 commanders to identify areas where more training may be needed.

The district’s first MCI was held in 1995. It included only one accident scene.

By 1997, the district stepped up the level of the exercises with simulated explosion at Freeland Hall during the junior prom. In 1998 a school bus was rolled over a bluff on Bob Galbreath Road in Clinton. The first multiple-scene training exercise was in 1999 with four scenes.

“As a district, our skill level has advanced a significant amount since 1999,” Beck said.

While volunteers were drilling, firefighters from Central Whidbey and Oak Harbor responded to real emergency calls on South Whidbey.

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