NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Sure there was some giggling and a little overdramatic acting in the dialysis unit on Tuesday evening, but the purpose was deadly serious.
Berkshire Medical Center was holding a fire drill at its North Adams campus to ensure that the staff had the process down cold on how to save their patients if things got too hot.
"We wanted to create an environment that would be challenging," said Lucy Britton, emergency management director for Berkshire Health Systems. "They're going to have to get them out in the chairs, what they would do in a real emergency."
The drill was based on a similar one held at the dialysis center in Pittsfield in June. Tuesday's was modified somewhat because the temperatures were too cold to have patients waiting outside. Instead, they were rushed across the hallway from the Doctor's Building to the lobby of the Ambulatory Care Center, where they waited for Northern Berkshire EMS to triage and transport them to the emergency facility around the corner.
North Adams Police and Fire departments also participated and the patients were all volunteers.
"We have requirements from our accreditor so any emergency room that would get patients from a community event, casualties, has to have an annual drill," Britton explained. "That's why we're doing it here.
"This population of patients is pretty special and it's not so easy to say 'get out' because they're hooked up to their dialysis machines. It makes a good population to test this on."
Seven "live" patients and two blowup patients were scattered around the center with scenario cards documenting their condition and any special needs. One patient was in a wheelchair, others had oxygen.
Becky McAllister and Dan Marsh were chatting in their dialysis chairs as they waited for the drill to begin. Both had recently graduated from the emergency medical technician course and were planning to take the national test so they could apply to work in North County.
McAllister saw participating in the drill as a learning experience that will make her a better EMT. Hands-on learning is an important addition to the hours of lecture and tests, she said.
"We did a simulation of a three-car accident and we just had to react," she said. "It was great. It was the best way to learn, at least for me."
Marsh said being on the patient side gave them a good perspective. "You know what they're going through," he said.
Then the fire alarm was pulled, emergency lights started flashing and a very calm voice began repeating over and over that there was a fire and everyone really should leave. Nurses and technicians began "unhooking" patients closest to the fire — which arriving firefighters believed started near the employee break room — and pushing their chairs through the center into the other building's lobby.
Some patients were quiet but there was laughter and one volunteer who really got into character, alternately between demanding and fearful.
Dr. David Henner, one of five or six observers of the drill, was watching to see how the staff's actions aligned with his checklist: making sure someone called 911, someone took charge and delegated duties, how the patients were treated and taken off the machines, and how well they were managed once removed from the center.
"It's the whole process of responding to the emergency and evacuating," he said. "Then once they get them out there, to make sure they're triaged appropriately and handed off to the emergency personnel who will take over."
Most importantly, it was making sure everyone was accounted for and no patients or staff are left, behind. That's something that could happen in the chaos of a real emergency, Henner said.
There was a brief concern that a patient was missing when she didn't respond, but the blowup individual was waiting patiently on a bench in the lobby.
Within a half-hour, all the patients were out, triaged and on their way to the emergency facility — or the cafeteria — where the team would be debriefed on their performance.
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