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Code Yellow training session at St. Joseph's puts emergency crews through their paces

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POLSON — Bristling with rifles, pistols and communication equipment, the Mission Valley Special Response Team eased through the sliding glass doors at St. Joseph Medical Center. Luckily, the camouflage-clad team was at the St. Joseph emergency room for a Code Yellow training session instead of an incident on Feb. 10 at about 3:30 p.m.

A Code Yellow at St. Joseph’s means a violent incident or event.

Information Officer Donna Whealon said the scenario for the training session was that a patient of Dr. Nate Buffington’s had become violent and shot Buffington and then remained with Buffington in the exam room, holding him hostage. 

In reality, Buffington had patients to see so a high school student, Marcus Corley, took over Buffington’s role.

The SRT team is a multi-jurisdictional group comprised of members from the Polson Police Department, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Tribal Law Enforcement and Sanders County law enforcement. The team talked to the “shooter” in an effort to get him to put his weapon down and come out of the room before rushing the room, overpowering the pretend shooter and rescuing Dr. Buffington.

Incident commander was Polson Assistant Police Chief John Stevens, who set up the command post in the first floor break room. A law enforcement communications van was set up outside the emergency room.

After the training session, everyone involved went to a debriefing in the third floor conference room. Many things went right with Code Yellow training session, but most of the discussion centered on concerns to be addressed.

Among the weak points discussed, training session participants agreed communication issues were a problem, with cell phones and radios not working 100 percent of the time.

Incident Commander Stevens said, “Our radios won’t penetrate your concrete.” 

Stevens and Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Miller suggested using a maintenance building behind the hospital as a command post. 

Even Dr. Buffington’s stand-in was asked for his opinion of the drill. Corley’s concern was the reaction time before the SRT team arrived at St. Joseph’s.

Steve Stanley, Head of Office of Emergency Management for Lake County, advised additions to the St. Joseph’s emergency plan, such as a better staging area for the Emergency Room staff, a back-up plan for the emergency room and alerting St. Luke’s in Ronan if an emergency situation occurs.

Miller also advocated notifying the LifeFlight helicopter of an emergency.

St. Joseph’s Practice Manager Heidi Webber said the medical center has seen … “a surge of more violent patients coming in.” 

Webber said, “We need to do it (Code Yellow training session again).”

Stevens advised the emergency preparedness team at St. Joseph’s to talk about “what if” scenarios. In keeping with Stevens’ idea, Stanley suggested tabletop planning, where a model of the hospital and grounds is used to simulate incidents and practice emergency plans.

Miller added that the Code Yellow training session was compressed into a short time. If the training session could be expanded into a four-hour block, more people could be involved, such as the Polson Police Department, more members of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, dispatch, Polson Volunteer Fire Department, local ambulances and other community members.

“The more people involved, the better it (a Code Yellow training session) is for the whole community,” Miller said.

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