La Trobe students 'treat' 24 injured in mock fire exercise (Issue 8, 2012)

Fire casualtyOne person was ‘killed’, another eight ‘seriously injured’, and 15 with minor injuries  were treated by 20 ‘paramedics’ after more than 40 fire fighters from seven fire engines battled thick smoke on two floors at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus in March.

‘The fire was probably one of the largest and most realistic mock disasters for emergency training of student paramedics ever staged in regional Australia,’ says La Trobe University Director of Risk Management Carl Gibson.

The event – scripted and played out a bit like a Hollywood movie – involved approximately a hundred staff and students from different parts of the University. It followed two weeks of planning and community consultation, especially with nearby residents.

‘With the tragedy of Black Saturday [2009 Victorian bushfires] still in mind, we wanted to make sure that there was no panic about the possibility that this was a real fire,’ says Dr Gibson.  

Dr Gibson, La Trobe Paramedics Course Coordinator Susan Furness, Regional Facilities Manager Mark Forder, and Bendigo Country Fire Authority (CFA) Leading Fire Fighter Chris Maloney, helped organise the ‘mega-simulation.’

The team also worked in cooperation with Ambulance Victoria, which provided an ambulance.

Ms Furness, who is also a qualified intensive care paramedic and Ambulance Commander, said the exercise provided Paramedicine students with ‘fantastic hands-on experience of a mass casualty incident and will be of great practical help when they join the workforce.’

Dr Gibson said it was also invaluable in helping prepare staff and the wider University community for a major incident. ‘We hope never to find ourselves in a situation like this, but the experience is important for students and staff, as well as community volunteer organisations.

‘CFA and Ambulance Victoria have been great supporters of the concept and the University is pleased that we are also able to support CFA training needs by providing access to this unique environment.’

The sources of the simulated fire were party smoke machines placed on two floors. ‘They provided an extremely realistic major fire simulation that at times restricted visibility to as little as a few centimetres,’ says Dr Gibson.

After trucks from three fire brigades – from Bendigo and nearby Golden Square and Kangaroo Flat stations – had the ‘fire’ under control, fifteen ‘walking injured’ role-players were evacuated by fire fighters wearing breathing apparatus and then cared for by La Trobe paramedic students.

The ‘seriously injured’, dead-weight fire-training manikins carried from the building, were then substituted by the University’s ultra-realistic high-tech resuscitation manikins for the students to work on. These respond to paramedic treatment like a real human would.

Things were made so realistic that the University response team also had to contend with panicked and grieving mock parents. One ‘collapsed’ and had to be resuscitated, placing more pressure on the team.

The team set up an emergency area for recovery and counselling family, friends and fellow students. Campus communications staff swung into action to handle mock media enquiries. They also helped real journalists who covered the exercise for local media.

Of course any fire that breaks out on two floors is suspicious. So at the end of the night, after a final sweep of the building uncovered the body of the fatally injured victim, the area was declared a ‘crime scene’ and ‘handed over to the police’, adding that final touch realism.
 
The next step in reality training for La Trobe Paramedicine students will include road accident exercises, also involving other emergency services. These will be staged in a special facility now being built on the Bendigo campus.