HOLDEN, Mass. — While there were blue skies over Holden Tuesday afternoon, a quiet hurricane still managed to sneak into town and strike Wachusett Extended Care, resulting in the need for a full evacuation of its residents.
Though this time it was clearly only a mock disaster, the well-prepared staff at the health care facility jumped into their assigned roles of command and helped conduct an evacuation drill in preparation for the real thing.
"I think it's very important," said Bob Oriol, president and CEO of Oriol Health Care. "We do this about every six month and every time we do it we make it a little bit more complex and more realistic."
In order to not disturb the facilities 41 residents, many of the which require ventilation or are bound to wheelchairs, volunteers took on the roles and needs of the patients and simulated transportation to resident accepting facilities within the MassMAP statewide group.
"I was very impressed on a couple of levels," said Scott Barry, Fire and Emergency Management Consultant for Russell Phillips & Associates. "The people at Wachusett Extended Care have a really deep committment to the safety of their residents. They volunteered to participate in this, and I think front and center in their consideration was the fact that they really want their residents here to be safe in fair weather and in fowl, no matter what's going on."
The operations were coordinated out of Wachusett Extended Care — the simulated “Disaster Struck Facility” — with administrator Sandy Mahoney acting as the incident commander and organizing the evacuation.
Disaster planning is a subject familiar to Mahoney, who has been a member of the Mass Mutual Aid Steering Committee since its inception four years ago.
"Ever since the horrible disasters that happened in New Orleans, we recognized that facilities are very frequently under prepared, so as much drilling and training that we can do is really important."
Mahoney said she was impressed to see "the team come together wonderfully," adding that "they were very professional and handled their areas, even though it was new for all of us."
"What I admired about the way things happened here today was the high level of competence that they exhibited when it came to going through this exercise, where they had to evacuate 42 residents," said Barry. "It's no easy thing to do, and I was really impressed with the fact that they did it calmly, competently and quickly. It's a very impressive group of people here."
Among the evaluators of the process were members of the Holden Fire Department and Holden Police Department, who offered suggestions on how to streamline the evacuation.
"Clearly, this is a facility that's well prepared, because of its own internal capabilities but also because of the great support they get from their regional partners, such as the Fire Department, local emergency managers and EMS providers. It's great to see everybody pulling their own for a common cause, and it's great to see everybody making time to do an exercise like this in case there is horrible surprise in the works for us down the road." added Barry.
Though Oriol said that "disasters come in all shapes and sizes," and what comes around the corner may not be exactly what they practiced for, this type of preparation allowed them to learn how to plan for the unexpected.
"I think the real lesson to learn is that we have to be flexible, and critical in our thought, and have to be able to adapt to the disaster at hand using the tools we have," he said. "The real test is can we think on our feet."