Preparing for the worst

Emergency response training includes simulated bus accident

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The page came into the Steamboat Springs Fire Department at 7:10 p.m. Wednesday. A city bus was on its side and more than a dozen passengers were in need of medical care.

The firefighters and the ambulance crew jumped in their vehicles and headed toward the Steamboat Springs Transit parking lot and the source of the call.

It was part of an annual training called a Mass Casualty Drill where first responders learn to react to a major disaster.

This time last year, the fire department responded to a simulated plane crash at Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

The bus accident was orchestrated to correspond with the Colorado Association of Transit Agencies Conference held in Steamboat last week.

The first goal of the simulated bus accident was to familiarize first responders with how to extricate victims from a bus that has rolled over. The second goal was to collect data and create a training video about how to react to a bus on fire.

"We want them to be more familiar with our vehicles as well as understand the complications that can occur," said Don Fowler, training and safety supervisor for SST.

The bus was tipped over and vehicle was brought into the parking lot to simulate the placement of traffic in a real accident.

More than a dozen people volunteered to act as passengers. They were each assigned an injury, ranging from abrasions to fatality.

The ambulance crew evaluated the passengers, bandaged them and sent them to the hospital as appropriate.

"The whole thing was very well coordinated," Fowler said.

"We kept getting comments that they seemed to be moving so slow, but when people are hurt you don't just throw them over your shoulder and run out with them."

Three ambulances and 25 firefighters participated. Scott Hetrick, a captain with the Steamboat Springs Fire Depart-ment, worked as the incident commander.

After the passengers were cleared from the wreck, the Steamboat Springs Fire Depart-ment set the bus on fire.

The fire took 10 minutes to get going, Fowler said, "but once a fire in a bus is started you only have three or four minutes before the whole thing is engulfed. The whole bus was in flames very rapidly."

Everyone present learned quickly that there is no time to take a bus fire lightly.

"Once the fire started, they could see how dense the smoke was and you smell that it was very toxic with all the plastics and other materials burning," Fowler said.

Fowler was excited, not only for the training that occurred Wednesday night, but for the training video that will result.

"This training could apply to other agencies' buses -- charter buses, Greyhound," Fowler said. "How many trucks have we heard about crashing on Rabbit Ears Pass? What if that was a bus? Instead of a truck full of beer it could be a bus full of people. Now everyone knows how to respond."

The bus that was set on fire was in service earlier this year but was one of many that were taken out of service this summer. Steamboat Springs Transit sold several of the buses but kept two -- one to be used for mass casualty training and one that will be refurbished for parades.

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