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Police, fire departments take part in simulated disaster exercise in Oak Lawn

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Photo by Dermot Connolly

An injured person is loaded into an ambulance headed for Advocate Christ Medical Center during a disaster drill held at the Oak Lawn Metra station on Sunday.

By Dermot Connolly

More than 800 people from throughout the southwest suburbs participated in a full-scale emergency training exercise in Oak Lawn on Sunday, turning the Metra station and surrounding area into a disaster zone.

First responders from eight communities, as well as local students and medical staff at Advocate Christ Medical Center took part in the exercise dubbed “The Guardians of Gotham,” which was funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security funneled through the hospital. Police from Oak Lawn, Evergreen Park, Chicago Ridge, Burbank, Bridgeview, Alsip, Hometown and Metra participated in the exercises, along with firefighters and paramedics from most of those communities, and the Orland Fire Protection District. The Illinois National Guard was also there.

With a Metra train in position at what is known as Patriot Station in downtown Oak Lawn, the events began with a realistic-sounding explosion on the platform. When police rushed in, an “active shooter” stationed on the fifth floor of the nearby parking garage started firing down, apparently badly injuring one of the police officers, who fired back before rolling behind a bench to wait for rescuers.

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Photo by Dermot Connolly

An “injured police officer” fires back at an active shooter on the fifth floor of the parking garage beside the Oak Lawn train station during a disaster drill Sunday in which numerous police and fire departments participated.

With media, local officials such as Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury and state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) were watching with supervisors from the fourth floor of the parking garage. Police and paramedics then came on the scene to perform a triage by deciding which of those either injured in the shootings or from explosions were the most in need of care and who goes to Advocate Christ Medical Center first.

The 50 victims, mainly local high school students, were seen coming out of the train station and nearby Children’s Museum, either hobbling along or were carried out on stretchers.

Throughout the exercise, supervisors were monitoring all the locations of action using software and cameras operated by Securonet, a Minnesota-based security company. They explained that in a real situation, the same types of cameras could be used in schools and elsewhere.

“It’s fascinating to watch. The scale of it is amazing,” said Burke, whose office is located across the street from the “disaster zone.”

“With Oak Lawn being the biggest community in the area, and the hospital is here, we are usually the focal point with disaster drills like this,” said Oak Lawn Police Chief Randy Palmer.

“Hopefully, we will never have to respond to something like this, but the first-responders have to know what to do. In the past, firefighters and paramedics would wait until the shooting had stopped to move in. But since the mass shooting in Las Vegas, they are being trained how to respond to what is called a ‘warm zone,’ when the shooter still poses a danger,” explained Oak Lawn Division Chief Ross Finnelly.

He pointed out how the medical personnel were being escorted in and out of the danger zone by teams of police.

Finnelly said the police also had to learn how to open the train doors from the outside if the engineer was incapacitated inside.

“Any opportunity to train for an event like this is very valuable,” said Chicago Ridge Deputy Chief Brian Galske.

“This is realistic, because what would happen in a real situation. Personnel from all the departments coming together. But they have to practice working together, so they will have confidence and trust in each other if it ever happens,” said Galske.

He said the five Chicago Ridge officers and a sergeant who participated will relay what they learned to those who were not there.

The whole exercise at the train station was wrapped up in about 45 minutes, which the police said was a good indication of how efficiently everything was done.

The action then transferred to Christ Hospital, about a mile away, where Dr. Liz Regan, an emergency medicine physician and one of the first medical directors of disaster medicine and preparedness, oversaw the drill. Media were kept away from that location, but by all accounts, everything went well.

“With recent year’s mass shootings, natural disasters, and other disaster events, it became clear to our campus that improving and testing our disaster response plans was imperative. Over the last year, our campus has worked tirelessly to update and review plans of response for every unit in our hospital,” said Regan.

“We activated our campus-wide plan (for the mass-casualty drill), and activated all treatment and response areas within the hospital. Over 400 hospital volunteers participated. Fifty patients, both adult and pediatric were transported to campus in 20 minutes, and every service they would require in the first hour were successfully activated,” she said. These included emergency department services, surgical sevices, laboratory, pharmacy, radiology, public safety, and family assistance.

In 2017, nearly 400 mass shootings occurred in the United States, including the deadliest in modern U.S. history, when 59 people were killed in Las Vegas on Oct. 1. Because Advocate Christ is one of the largest hospitals and level one trauma centers in the Chicago area, Regan stressed the importance of educating and training hospital staff, and working with community partners to prepare for such occurrences.

“On every hospital unit, the healthcare teams identified surge areas for disaster patients. The plans helped us identify opportunities, and we learned valuable lessons on communication and deployment of resources to treatment areas, but the drill was overall a huge success and showed a level of passion, cooperation and teamwork on campus that we are extremely proud of,” said Regan.

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