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Practicing to save lives: Island Police and Fire departments take part in mass casualty incident training

A teenage volunteer in a white T-shirt stained with fake blood lay on her back, clutching the prosthetic wound on her side, crying for help from the baseball field at Mattituck High School.

She was one of 59 volunteer high school students from across Suffolk County who acted as victims in a simulated mass casualty response training exercise on a recent Saturday morning.

“It’s an act,” Chip Bancroft, deputy chief of the Plum Island Fire Department and founder of Firehouse Training Plus, which staged the exercise, said to the group of parents, elected officials and school district leaders gathered on the sideline to watch the scenario before he made the 911 call “reporting the incident.”

Chief Bancroft developed the program in response to the seemingly relentless barrage of mass shootings that continue nationwide. Just this past weekend there were mass shootings in Florida, Oklahoma and Massachusetts.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 472 mass shootings so far in 2023, which are defined by the organization as an incident where four or more people are killed or wounded, not including the shooter.

Moments after Chief Bancroft’s phone call, dozens of teenage voices cut through the still summer air as more than 150 firefighters and EMTs from the North Fork, Shelter Island and Suffolk County began to arrive on the scene. “They are helping people train to save lives and they are making a bigger difference than they can even comprehend,” Farrah Soudani, a survivor of the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., who attended the simulation, said of the volunteer students. “I’m very thankful that they’re willing to help.”

The teen actors behaved as though they were victims of a real shooting, screaming, even cursing at the first responders, demanding their undivided attention despite the dozens of other casualties in desperate need.

While the students and observers may have witnessed only chaos, the medical personnel and firefighters responded with cool precision, shouting color codes — green, yellow or red in order of increasingly dire injury — as the triage began.

“The biggest strength was teamwork,” Chief Bancroft said after the drill. “The first responders realized the resources they needed, no one panicked, no one got egotistical about it … they went right to work.”

Shelter Island Fire Department Chief Dan Rasmussen said he and the Island volunteers participating learned crucial lessons, including “what response times would be and how many resources you would need” in a mass casualty emergency.

The Shelter Island Police Department also participated in the event, with 10 officers and three members of the Marine Patrol on hand, according to Chief Jim Read. “These types of drills have also become part of our annual training requirements for the department,” the chief said. “These cooperative training efforts with the surrounding Police, EMS and Fire departments enhance our community’s ability to respond, terminate an active threat, and assist those in need of medical treatment.” 

When responding to such a call, EMS responders provide the medical know-how, whereas the firefighters provide some much needed muscle. “We’re more or less the bull work,” Mattituck Fire Department Chief Jim Cox explained. “We pick up and carry patients across the field. And we always try to keep our EMS safe.”

Across from the school yard on Pike Street, Chief Cox, Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley and other officials headed up the incident command center, loaded with communication equipment.

“For the most part our guys did pretty well,” Chief Cox said after the drill. “We had some communication issues, we’ll probably need more [radio] frequencies. EMS basically took over the channel, which obviously was going to happen. Future reference for us, we’re going to be putting EMS on their own separate channel.”

Just as they would in a real incident, ambulances arrived at a staging area, then entered the school yard to pick up victims. A designated transportation officer kept track of the vehicles, personnel and patients leaving the scene en route to hospitals.

“They didn’t lose anybody,” Chief Bancroft said. “I know that sounds to a lot of people like a joke, but when you’ve got people from different agencies going to this hospital, that hospital, running here and there, you have to track those kids. And they did. I was highly impressed.”

There are other aspects of a real-world mass casualty incident that could not have been effectively simulated Saturday. For instance, Chief Flatley explained, police would have opened homicide investigations into the two “deaths” on the ball field, a media pen would have been set up on the track and there, of course, would have been more officers from Southold and other departments across the county on hand.

While the firefighter and EMS response training unfolded outside, police officers from Suffolk County departments trained inside the school, finding and neutralizing the shooter. In small groups, officers were ushered through training courses before practicing taking down a shooter with paintball guns.

Seated on stools in an art classroom, where a poster explaining the four “C’s” of art — Concept, Composition, Craftsmanship and Creativity — hung on the wall, Dennis O’Connor, a tactical medic with the Suffolk County Police Department, taught the officers TECC — tactical emergency combat care.

The officers learned how to properly self-apply a tourniquet within 30 seconds in case of injury and to assist any fellow officers who might also be wounded. Police are instructed to not care for any other victims they may encounter: Their priority is to prevent any more death or injury by finding and neutralizing the shooter as soon as possible.

Support staff from Human Understanding and Growth Services (HUGS), a Westhampton-based nonprofit that addresses the needs of Suffolk County’s youth, worked with the student volunteers Saturday to ensure they don’t experience excessive anxiety from the simulated experience.

“It’s pretty realistic, the scene and the sounds, and the visuals from the scene are pretty impactful,” said Kym Laube, executive director of HUGS. “We work on the back end with students and do a little decompression and a little transition and just talk with them about ways they can reduce stress, no matter what the stress is, not only for this event.”