Cordova stages marine highway terrorist exercise

Police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, the U.S. Coast Guard, federal and state agencies and others came together on April 29 to test their skills in dealing with a marine highway terrorist incident in Cordova.

By day’s end, many mistakes had been made, many challenges conquered, and many lessons learned.

The event, hosted by the Alaska Marine Highway System, had been in the works for over two years, and many participants also were involved in planning.

Our first responders have not conducted a drill of this magnitude with the AMHS since we worked with the M/V Tustumena in 2004.

The first “explosion” occurred early in the morning, moments before Cordova dispatch received notification from M/V Aurora Master Adam Dixon. An immediate message was sent out to Cordova Emergency Manager Joanie Behrends, via text, stating “this is a drill. Active shooter on ferry, explosion on car deck, 57 passengers, 15 vehicles. Injuries and fire, police on scene, fire and EMS staging. Ferry tied up at 0840.” This notification, from Dispatch Supervisor Natalie Webb, was one of many initiated simultaneously.

Numerous notification processes were subsequently tested by AMHS, the Coast Guard, the city of Cordova, Cordova Community Medical Center, and the Native Village of Eyak’s Ilanka Clinic.

What happened next was a combination of in-the-moment organized chaos and countless years of training colliding in a frenzy of predictable activities, including
dispatch relays of message upon message. The exercise operated on actual frequencies used in real life emergencies, to effectively test the operational communications system. The job of dispatcher in a scenario such as this is crucial. Mistakes cost lives.

The exercise was conducted in three distinct segments.

First was the law enforcement segment, a measured, timely, combined response led by Cordova Police Chief Mike Hicks, U.S. Forest Service Officer Andy Morse, and State Trooper Alex Arduser to catch the “bad guy”. This portion of the exercise was coordinated as would be an actual scenario, with the exception that all law enforcement personnel used simulated weapons.

The second training segment was a simulated fire suppression, which allowed Cordova Volunteer Fire Department personnel to do a “walk-through” of the Aurora. Firefighters explored unfamiliar sections of the ship, following the instruction of the shipboard fire team. Critical discussion that took place included topics such as “what responsibilities rest with whom” and shipboard fire fighting techniques.

As the walk-though ended, the simulated fire was “contained”, which meant that EMS could safely respond to the scene of the injured. An undersized crew of medics, assisted greatly by the firefighters, began the arduous task of sorting all patients by the seriousness of injuries (a process entitled triage), treating life-threatening injuries, and transporting them to Cordova Community Medical Center.

CCMC staff, supported by Ilanka Clinic personnel, were impressive, according to Dick Groff, exercise lead and evaluator. Despite the overwhelming number of victims, it appeared that the challenge was handled well.

Each victim had a tag that indicated their vital signs to medical staff as victims entered the hospital doors. Doctors and nurses were then expected to treat, medevac if necessary, and track patients, no small feat in a town this size, when 15 patients come through the doors.

The Unified Command, consisting of AMHS Master Adam Dixon, Cordova Police Chief Mike Hicks, and CVFD Fire Marshal Paul Trumblee managed the scene of the attack, establishing objectives and communicating those directives to their respective teams. “Unified Command” means that those individuals work together closely to manage the disaster, each with the same amount of authority. It can be tricky. On April 29th, that process was tested and was observed by US Coast Guard representatives, from both Cordova and Valdez sectors.

The process went very well and communications were made very quickly by the team.
Participants and planners for this exercise were Alaska Marine Highway System, city of Cordova, Public Safety Dispatch Center, Cordova Police Department, Cordova Volunteer Fire Department, Cordova Community Medical Center, Native Village of Eyak Ilanka Clinic, U.S. Forest Service, Alaska State Troopers, U.S. Coast Guard personnel from Cordova and Valdez, and the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Roughly 100 Cordovans and others Participated.

There were also many behind the scenes individuals who contributed to the execution of this complicated and comprehensive exercise. They included moulage organizer Katherine Mead, photographer Bree Mills, Girl Scout leader Anita Smyke, numerous Girl Scout “victims”, the Latter Day Saints Missionary Elders volunteering as victims, and the keeper of the chili, Amy Bourdess.

EMS Captain Joanie Behrends is an emergency medical services captain for Cordova and Cordova’s Alaska Shield representative.