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Gathered in the woods, emergency response units hold mass casualty incident drill at Garnet Peak

Simulation Photo 1

Emergency medical personnel watch as a victim is strapped on to an ATV for transport during a mock mass casualty incident drill that took place Saturday  morning at Garnet Peak in Peru.

PERU — The youngsters came slowly out of the woods towards a clearing at the end of an old logging road on Garnet Peak.

Some walked on their own, others needed assistance. A few were carted out on stretchers. One even moaned.

Given the conditions these youngsters were in, it looked like they had been involved in a tragic accident that had taken place deep in an isolated area of Peru State Forest. But what appeared real was actually the simulation of a tragedy, set up to provide emergency personnel from numerous Berkshire County agencies the opportunity to prepare for the real thing.

The Peru police and fire departments hosted a simulated mass casualty incident at Garnet Peak Saturday morning in the same area where a real life tragedy had occurred almost 80 years ago. On Aug. 15, 1942, a military transport plane had crashed on Garnet Peak, killing 16 of the 19 members of the U.S. Air Force that were aboard.

Saturday's simulated event was also supposed to be a plane crash, and it took place less than a mile from where the real military transport plane had gone down. It was the first simulated mass casualty incident held in Peru since Bruce Cullett became police chief two years ago.

"The purpose was to essentially practice a mass casualty incident and to respond to a mass casualty incident, which is something that's not done that often," Cullett said after the drill had been completed. "It's much different to respond to an incident in a place that remote than in the center of town.

"It's not something that we're going to encounter everyday, hopefully," he said. "But it's something that we need to be ready for."

Personnel from 33 local and regional emergency response agencies, including police, fire, ambulance and rescue squads, took part in the roughly three hour exercise, which began with fog shrouding one of the town's highest peaks, but ended in bright, hot sunshine. An actual aircraft wasn't placed in the woods, although a drone flown slightly above the tree line was utilized in the search for survivors. The 18 "victims," who ranged in age from 13 to 17, were members of the Wahconah Regional High School drama club and a Boy Scout troop from Southwick. A few mannequins were also used to simulate people who had received extremely serious injuries.

Some of the student victims were caked in a red substance that was used to simulate blood. All of them wore placards that described the extent of their injuries. 

"The kids were given an idea of what they're doing," said Mike Pandora of the Western Massachusetts Regional EMS office, who served as one of the drill's evaluators. "Because they're drama students, they can act pretty well."

When the youngsters came out of the forest into the clearing they were met by first responders, who divided them into groups based on the extent of their injuries. The ones carried out on stretchers were strapped onto ATVs, then transported down the long, bumpy logging road to a staging area set up at the base of Garnet Peak.

Everything moved smoothly at the top of the peak, with first responders moving quickly and efficiently into pre-assigned roles.

Practicing these scenarios is also important so emergency responder can know that "everything works."

"It's important because if this is the real thing we want to be able to go," Pandora said.

First responders did have trouble communicating with each other early on. Cullett attributed the early snafus to the distances between people trying to speak to each other on portable radios and the extremely rugged terrain. 

"We tried a few different things, but we finally straightened it out," he said.

Two helicopters, one from the State Police, the other from Life Star, that were supposed to arrive at the peak when the exercise was over, were grounded due to the fog that enveloped the Pioneer Valley where they were flying from.  

Emergency personnel now plan to review the outcome of Saturday's drill and make adjustments where necessary.

"I think it went very well," Cullett said. "I think this was a learning experience for everybody."

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.

Business writer

Tony Dobrowolski's main focus is on business reporting. He came to The Eagle in 1992 after previously working for newspapers in Connecticut and Montreal. He can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.

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