Smoke filled the air in the room, making it difficult to see and setting off the shrill sounds of a fire alarm Thursday morning at Seymour High School.
A natural gas leak in a boiler room caused an explosion, leaving three dead and injuring 12 — or so that was what everyone was to pretend had happened during a simulated full-scale disaster exercise.
Seymour firefighters braved the conditions to extinguish the fire and help lead — and in some instances carry — injured people to safety from the commons area between the two gyms while police officers helped control and secure the scene.
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Paramedics and emergency medical technicians with Jackson County Emergency Medical Services set up a triage area to treat victims with head and leg injuries and smoke inhalation.
Teachers and school administrators quickly but methodically evacuated students from the building, loading them onto school buses to transport them to a nearby church, where they could be picked up by their families.
The scene was one Assistant Principal Talmadge Reasoner hopes and prays he never has to see for real. But by putting emergency plans into action for training purposes, the school and different emergency response agencies can take a closer look at what works and what doesn’t.
“Things like this, they affirm what we do, but they give us a ton of information about how we can improve things, make them better,” he said.
He fully expected there to be glitches and things people didn’t know how to do or things they hadn’t planned for, he said.
“You can make all the plans in the world, but until you actually have live vehicles and live personnel on the scene, you realize that’s not going to work there or we need to make this adjustment here or that’s something we didn’t plan for,” he said.
But Reasoner felt like a lot went right.
“Our communication, which went from the initial call to first responders to students and staff and central office personnel, that happened very quickly,” he said. “The response time was really, really good.”
Police were on the scene within six minutes after receiving the call, and the fire department arrived just a minute later.
One thing Reasoner noticed during Thursday’s drill is when students evacuated from the building, they weren’t at a safe enough distance to allow emergency vehicles to access the site.
He also expected there to be hiccups with the process of reuniting students with their families.
“You have to do that in a somewhat methodical and slow way,” he said. “It’s chaos, and people are stressed. Their emotions are high. We realize parents are going to be very, very concerned about their child’s safety.”
It’s the school’s responsibility to create a semblance of order to keep people calm, he said.
“Trying to reunify 1,500 students with their parents is massive. I would say a school our size, it could take six to seven hours,” he said. “I think there are still areas where we can continually improve and try to get as close to perfect as we can.”
He said he is thankful to live in a small community like Seymour because of the positive relationship he has with first responders.
“I personally know every one of the people who is responding here in some fashion, and they know who I am,” he said. “They know who all of our people are. It just makes it so much easier.”
The school conducts drills for a lot of situations, including fires, tornadoes and active shooters, Reasoner said.
“We have people that do a really good job of making decisions on the fly to try to keep kids safe,” he said.
Being prepared for any situation is key, said Duane Davis, director of the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency and Office of Homeland Security.
Davis and his staff organized the exercise with assistance from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. It’s the second large-scale exercise conducted at the school in the past four years. In 2015, the staged scenario was a school shooting.
After Thursday’s exercise was over, everyone came together to discuss how it went.
“This is a chance we get to find our strengths. We get input on our weaknesses. Where can we improve?” Davis said. “From there, we will develop an after-action report and improvement plan, where we look at the weaknesses and how we can make them into strengths so that next time, we show improvement.”
Davis gave everyone an A for their response efforts.
“It went well,” he said. “There was a lot of good planning that was done. We had a lot of what ifs. Were there some hiccups here and there? Yeah, but I think we did a good job of covering everything.”
He said he hopes to organize another similar exercise a couple of years down the road.
Seymour Fire Chief Brad Lucas said the exercise was the perfect opportunity to give his new firefighters real-life training.
“The last two years, I’ve hired six firefighters,” he said. “It worked out really well to get them in there and give them as close to live experience as we can give them.”
Hugh Garner with Jackson County EMS praised the efforts of paramedics and EMTs.
“I can’t say enough about how they performed as they do seven days a week, 365 days a year. They know what to do. They’ve been challenged with multi-casualty incidents in the past,” he said.
“They did very well with getting the right patients off of the scene at the right time,” he said. “I’m always expecting high things from them, and they certainly didn’t let me down today.”
Such exercises wouldn’t be possible without the involvement and participation of all parties, Reasoner said.
“I’m impressed with the mutual cooperation we have with all of our responders, all of our agencies,” he said. “I’m thankful in a community like this we can pull a drill like this together and people take it seriously.”
Some of the people watching the exercise were tasked with evaluating how it went.
Shelle Fletcher, deputy director for Monroe County Emergency Management Agency, was one of those people.
“I liked seeing the first responders assess the scene before they went in to pull people out,” she said. “I liked that there was a definite triage area.”
She plans to share what she observed with her coworkers and emergency partners in Monroe County.
“It’s just one way for us to walk through through the processes and see where our shortfalls are,” she said.