An intensive multi-agency training exercise at Narragansett Town Beach on Wednesday transformed the Rhode Island shoreline into the site of a mock mass-casualty event, with volunteers and actors providing real-life chaos to simulate the worst-case scenario for local, state and federal emergency response personnel.
“Bodies” lined the beach. Some were volunteer actors recruited by the Rhode Island and Narragansett emergency management agencies suffering from cosmetically-applied injuries, others were inflatable victims designed to represent dead bodies as police, fire and emergency personnel went through the process of isolating an active shooter, clearing the area of safety hazards and coordinating medical help.
The training, dubbed “Operation Red Tide,” was the first beach-specific regional training exercise of its kind in the state and involved active participants from 17 state and local agencies representing Narragansett, South Kingstown, North Kingstown, the University of Rhode Island and the state itself. The $22,000 program was funded through a Homeland Security grant and administered by the Narragansett Emergency Management Agency with the help of Police Chief Sean Corrigan and Fire Chief Scott Partington.
“This had been in the planning process for over a year now, before Las Vegas and the recent shootings,” Corrigan said. “We have done a lot of active-shooter and mass-casualty training, but this was an opportunity to put the many moving parts involved together at the same time.”
Although Westerly and other area towns were not directly represented in the event, local officials said the program was just the latest and most public in an ongoing effort to be prepared that includes regular meetings, training and inter-agency communication.
On Wednesday evening, the town’s sworn reserve officers were silently conducting their own training at an unoccupied factory in town, dealing with multiple active-shooter scenarios. Westerly Police Chief Richard Silva said all officers receive active-shooter training on an annual basis, if not more frequently, and protocols and policies are constantly being updated to reflect potential weaknesses or proven response with each national incident.
Silva and Watch Hill Fire Chief Robert Peacock said the town has not done any beach-specific training, but have run over countless scenarios in the past several years and would be ready should such a tragic incident occur at the beach or anywhere else in the community for that matter.
“In the event a shooting were to happen, we need to rely on local, state and federal resources, but even more importantly, we need to be prepared to adapt,” said Silva, who also serves as vice president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association. “That takes a lot of dedication to making sure you are prepared.”
For Westerly police, fire and ambulance personnel, being prepared means sharing resources, identifying weaknesses in response and promoting cross-department training. Westerly Emergency Management Coordinator Amy Grzybowski said this requires keeping open all lines of communication, noting that she meets monthly with Silva, each of the town’s fire chiefs and leaders with Westerly Ambulance to discuss all aspects of potential response needs.
Grzybowski, who also serves as executive director of the Westerly Education Center, said discussions involve trends, emergency management and available training opportunities. In addition, these meetings led to changes in March that allowed the town to more adequately supply primary and secondary plans in the event of a mass-casualty event, including where and how to establish a family resource center to help coordinate information for victims’ families and annexes to consolidate and expedite medical response.
Specific details of these plans, including exact locations, will never be released to the public unless needed, a precaution taken to prevent the information from falling into the wrong hands, but the changes have already been relayed and put into policy for local first-responders.
Ken Richards III, EMS administrator for Westerly Ambulance, said that all firefighters, ambulance personnel, Westerly Hospital emergency response staff and even town lifeguards are trained in the use of Smart Triage, a cross-department coordination system that allows all first-responders to identify and prioritize the most significant injuries to enhance response during a mass-casualty event.
Those same agencies, as well as Westerly police, have also received the same “Stop the Bleed” training designed to help address the most significant medical needs in a timely manner.
“We’ve been fortunate in Westerly to have a cohesive group of dedicated officials, especially since Superstorm Sandy,” she said. “All parties have been committed to making sure we are as prepared as we can be.”
It isn’t just the town’s emergency responders that are preparing either. The district’s schools have been regular partners with police department, Silva said, and Grzybowski noted that the Westerly Education Center has continued to work alongside the state to secure training funds and opportunities.
The hope, of course, is that the town will never need to use any of these techniques or training, but all those interviewed this week said they will continue to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
“There’s a lot of pressure on volunteers to remain up-to-date with training, but when you ask them, this is what they signed up to do,” Peacock said. “We are ready and we are prepared to go in the event that anything that catastrophic should ever happen here.”