By Darrell Todd Maurina
Communications problems which complicated an emergency medical run on Feb. 2 could have implications for any future disaster, members of the exercise design subcommittee of the Curry County Local Emergency Planning Committee noted Friday.
Meeting to plan the county’s next disaster training drill, members discussed the Feb. 2 incident that didn’t go according to plan.
On that day, a train crew member was taken to Plains Regional Medical Center after inhaling denatured alcohol mist seeping from a train stopped 10 miles west of Melrose.
Terri Marney, director of quality assurance at the hospital, said due to miscommunications, the hospital received incorrect information about what chemical had sickened the train crew member and refused to let the Melrose Fire Department bring the injured man into the hospital until the chemical was properly identified.
“We received a call from a citizen who saw Melrose EMS out there and got a placard number (identifying the contents of the tanker car),” Marney said.
“We looked it up, and (the placard number) was a very hazardous substance. We called the fire department and they didn’t have any idea what was in the train,” Marney said. “They rolled up to the hospital and I didn’t even let them get out of the ambulance until we knew what we were dealing with.”
While the actual contents of the car weren’t particularly toxic, Marney said the incident pointed out a lack of training that she said is common among the rural fire departments.
“Our biggest problem is communication,” Marney said. “We had a real problem with lack of communication and a fire department that had no capability of doing decontamination.”
LEPC director Ken De Los Santos said the committee needs to do a better job of getting the word out to rural departments on how to handle hazardous material incidents. State law says the New Mexico State Police are supposed to take charge of hazardous materials incidents, but that didn’t happen with the train at Melrose.
“The ones who are the first responders weren’t necessarily trained on what they should do because they left before the state police even got there,” De Los Santos said. “Terri, I agree there were several communication failures in this whole thing.”
Some committee members asked to review 911 tapes of the incident, but Capt. Leon Morris of the Clovis Police Department said that wouldn’t be necessary.
“Melrose was advised there was a leak and a man down, so they had enough information to know they should have put the brakes on and not gone in,” Morris said. “The problem is that first responders want to go in and save lives. Sooner or later if this keeps up, we’re going to have the first crew on the scene knocked out when they try to respond to an incident.”
De Los Santos said he was contacted early in the process and tried to provide help. The initial identification of the chemical was for a substance that can be fatal if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and De Los Santos said his primary concern was that the misidentified chemical might knock out the Melrose firefighters driving toward Clovis.
“My phone was ringing off the hook,” De Los Santos said. “As soon as I heard this, I was thinking, ‘Oh, boy — now we’re going to have drivers who are overcome, too.’”
Capt. Karen Burns of the Clovis Fire Department said Melrose isn’t the problem and shouldn’t be singled out for criticism.
“It’s a problem with all the services, not just Melrose,” Burns said. “They will wait to call the hospital until they reach the Clovis city limits or even until they have pulled up to the back door.”
Committee members didn’t come to a consensus on a solution, but some noted that radio reception in outlying areas is poor and the rural departments need not only better training but also upgraded equipment to respond effectively to emergencies.