SMC drill

SHOWER: Heath Smith enacts how a victim of an anhydrous ammonia spill would proceed in the decontamination tent at Saunders Medical Center during a drill on Thursday. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

WAHOO – A drill teaming Saunders Medical Center with local law enforcement agencies and first responders last week practiced emergency response to an anhydrous ammonia spill in the Wahoo area.

The purpose of the make-believe anhydrous ammonia accident was to test the incident command response from Wahoo rescue and fire departments and the Saunders County Sheriff’s office and Wahoo Police Department, as well as the hospital’s decontamination procedures and shelter in place plan, said Saunders County Emergency Manager Terry Miller.

The set up included an initial victim who was exposed to anhydrous ammonia during an explosion at a local site where the tanks of the gas are kept. Anhydrous ammonia is a common agricultural fertilizer that is a source of nitrogen.

Miller said the scenario included members of the Wahoo Rescue Department who come out to help the initial victim. Those first responders are also asphyxiated by the gas. Then a second rescue unit from Wahoo comes to their aid, setting up a command center at the site.

Once the victims were able to be treated on scene, they were taken to Saunders Medical Center, where a decontamination tent was set up.

Throughout the drill, observers were in place to watch the first responders and medical staff. A debriefing session was held afterwards as well.

Miller said he worked with SMC, Wahoo Emergency Medical Services Chief Grant Anderson and the sheriff’s department to set up the drill.

“We want to exercise the plan and make sure to tweak it here and there,” Miller said.

Anderson said his department will use the drill as a learning experience.

“It definitely helped us, especially in the aspect of learning and just simply procedures, what we have to encounter and what is required if we have a hazardous material response,” he said.

For Anderson, the drill identified areas to improve.

“The goal of the exercise is to recreate the incident so we can find these gaps and holes and hopefully address them before the incident occurs,” he said.

The goal of the drill for SMC was to test their outside decontamination team and the shelter in place process, said Jessica Trutna, trauma nurse coordinator.

“It was two drills going on at the same time,” she said.

It was SMC’s first chance to see the decontamination tent set up and put to use, Trutna said, and things went well.

“Overall we were pretty happy with how the response to the drill was from our staff, EMS and police,” she added.

SMC Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tiffany Alcorn said they evaluated the decontamination team’s response to the scenario.

“We were able to pinpoint how long it takes to set up and the average time it takes to get each person through,” she said.

The shelter-in-place drill illuminated some areas of improvement, said Trutna. When relocating the 60 long-term care residents at SMC to a safe area, they realized that more staff was needed.

“We determined other staff could move residents to safe areas,” she added.

SMC is required to hold annual full-scales drills and one table-top drill per year, said Trutna. This is the first time they’ve practiced with their decontamination set up.

“This is the first drill of this kind,” she said.

Practicing what to do during an anhydrous ammonia spill is beneficial in an area where farming is a key industry like Saunders County, said Anderson. Not only is the gas used as a fertilizer by farmers, but it is also brought in via the railways and pipelines, he added.

“The potential is there for anything from very small spills to large spills,” he said.

All of the participants felt the drill went well, but there is always remove for improvement.

“This is not to test the performance of anybody, but to put the plan in action,” Miller said.

The drill also allowed Miller to practice use of the notification system recently implemented by Saunders County Emergency Management. The new notification system, powered by AlertSense, allows Miller to target specific areas for notifications. In this case, the area downwind of the anhydrous ammonia spill would have been alerted to stay indoors, but not evacuated.

“That is one of the tools that we would use to notify them,” Miller said.

Miller suggests all residents and businesses in the county that have not already signed up for the notification system do so by going to the website,

There is also a free mobile app for Android and Apple devices.

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