This small town of 5,600 holds a large county fair annually and garnered a $15,000 FEMA Homeland Security Grant to stage a full-scale mass-casualty drill where a suspected gas leak turns into a massive, chaotic accident.
Topsfield, Mass., is a town of about 5,600 and home to the Topsfield Fair, one of the oldest of its type, its inaugural event having taken place in 1818 and in 2010 having counted more than 500,000 attendees.
So, a mass casualty event is not out of the questions and certainly, with times being what they are, preparation for an all-hazards scenario is essential. That’s what Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Jen Collins-Brown was thinking when she applied for a homeland security grant from FEMA.
The $15,000 grant was administered through a private firm, The Mier Group, which developed the table-top, mass-casualty event and decided that the simulated incident would feature a gas leak that inadvertently led to a truck crashing into a stream of people voluntarily evacuating the incident.
It just so happens that next door to the fairgrounds is a fueling facility with a 30,000-gallon propane tank. For the purposes of the drill, attendees began reporting an odor and self-evacuating. That’s when the truck plowed into seven to nine of them and took off.
Collins-Brown said that a mass-casualty event involving the fueling plant was probably not likely, but the truck accident was certainly possible and the whole scenario qualified as a homeland security scene, a necessity for obtaining the grant.
“It was hard because to comply with the grant, it has to be a homeland security incident, which is unlikely here, although with recent shootings and things like that, a county fair could be a soft target,” Collins-Brown said. “Truthfully, the likelihood of a mass terrorism incident is less likely, so we were trying to be realistic.”
All of the local public safety entities were there, including representatives from the Massachusetts State Police; regional dispatch and EMS; ambulance services; the local hospital; and AmeriGas, the fueling facility.
Although the after-action report isn’t completed yet, Collins-Brown said there are certainly lessons learned, especially regarding communications and unified command. Practicing evacuation of the bystanders, treating the wounded, and where resources would be brought was a worthwhile lesson and there proved to be issues with the location of where police and fire staged — right in front of the incident, Collins-Brown said.
“We really should have a unified command post where everybody is together, have the primary decision-makers together,” she said. “We have so much more that we could do to make it better.”
Overall, she was pleased with most of what occurred during the event and how it was set up by The Mier Group.
“It seems a little crazy from a practical standpoint that it would be a $15,000 for a tabletop,” Collins-Brown said. “But if you think about it, it has to meet all the standards and, truthfully, that’s not my expertise, so to have a professional company come in and do that makes for a better product.”
She said she was able to screen several companies and didn’t like that many of the companies’ exercises were done online. She admitted to being nervous about how it would turn out. “I’m grateful to be able to do this,” she said. “We’re a small town and there are no extras.”