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Team Tests Emergency Response at Calif. University

VENTURA, Calif. -- A team of fire, medical and law enforcement professionals joined California Lutheran University staff members Monday morning for an exercise to test disaster response on campus.

During the 'emergency' shortly after 9 a.m., student Jeremy Hanna, 20, complained of feeling ill while in a lab at the university's Ahmanson Science Center. Paramedics and firefighters were called. And as they began evaluating Hanna, nine other students complained of feeling sick. They were led coughing and scratching from the building.

Under the direction of firefighter and paramedic Mike Hansen of the Ventura County Fire Department, American Medical response paramedic Amanda Tolle began triaging the students.

'Can you walk?' she asked Ashton Williams, 19. 'No,' Williams said as she sat on the ground shaking. 'I feel a little dizzy.' As fire alarms sounded, students were evacuated from the science center to assembly points, and a perimeter was set up to keep people away from the area. The mock emergency was the exposure of 10 students to an unknown chemical mix in the lab that was causing them to have breathing and skin issues.

The drill was designed to simulate a multicasualty incident that evolved into a hazardous material incident, said Fire Department Capt. Ron Oatman.

"The majority of the students had no idea, and so this was a test of the basic evacuation system that the school would use," said Oatman.

The 10 students pretending to be patients were theater arts majors, but their squeals were real as firefighters hosed them down with water from a hydrant as part of a field decontamination procedure.

But despite being cold and wet, they said they thought taking part in the exercise had been important.

"It was very educational in a way," said Shaun Hara, 22. "Now I kind of understand what the process would feel like if this actually happened."

The exercise was designed to include a hazmat investigation of the lab and a criminal investigation into what sparked the chemical contamination while the university dealt with anxious parents and getting information to the public.

Oatman said about 60 professionals were involved from Ventura County, Ventura City and Oxnard fire departments; the Ventura County Air Force Base and Naval Base fire departments; the Ventura County Sheriff's Office; and American Medical Response. The exercise was funded through a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, he said.

Some of those involved served as controllers, helping the exercise move along as planned, and others were evaluators, assessing the actions of the participants.

As the exercise unfolded, CLU set up an Emergency Operations Center to coordinate the campus response under the direction of Ryan Van Ommeren, assistant vice president of operations and planning.

For the first time, the university had established an on-site command to serve as a liaison with the center, Van Ommeren said, and that had helped facilitate the university's emergency response.

"It went very well, and I think people were confident with their roles," he said afterward. "This is the first drill we've run during a class day in class time, and that gave us more realism."

CLU said other agencies involved in Monday's drill included the Ventura County Environmental Health Division, Ventura County Sheriff's Office of Emergency Services, Thousand Oaks Police Department and city of Thousand Oaks.



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