Dirty Bomb Drill Tests Boston Preparedness

A dirty bomb exploded at Logan Airport last week and emergency personnel rushed to the scene and transported victims to local hospitals to be treated for radiation exposure.

This simulation drill was enacted throughout Boston to test emergency response procedures in the event of the detonation of a dirty bomb, a device that contains radioactive material that is released into the air upon explosion.

“September 11th was an indication to us,” said Jeff D. Ventura, spokesperson for Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “What if, instead of New York, it happened here? How prepared are we to handle disaster on a large scale?”

The drill, dubbed Operation Prometheus, began at Logan Airport on Thursday with the simulated explosion of a dirty bomb on an inbound United Airlines flight from France, and continued on Friday when 10 hospitals in the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals received victims coming in for treatment.

The main objective of the drill was to facilitate communication and cooperation among all emergency response agencies involved.

Over 50 agencies participated in the drill, including the Massachusetts National Guard, FBI, American Red Cross, United States Coast Guard and Harvard School of Public Health.

Girl Scout troops, schoolchildren and Harvard Medical School students joined in on the effort, as well.

“With all the federal, state and local agencies, it was alphabet soup,” said Stephen Morash, Boston Emergency Management Agency deputy director. “The immenseness of this exercise is something you wouldn’t see before in this city.”

Prior to the drill, all the agencies gathered in a conference hall to perform a tabletop exercise, in which they ran through a fake dirty bomb scenario so that all involved could communicate and ask questions, according to Ventura.

At 8:15 on Friday morning, the teaching hospitals were notified of the dirty bomb explosion. Their role in the drill was to assess the procedures in place for diagnosing and treating contaminated patients.

Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center were the three Harvard teaching hospitals involved in the functional part of the drill—testing hospital care—said Sarah J. Hamilton, director of area planning and development for the Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization (MASCO).

“We executed a code amber, like a code blue on television,” Ventura said. “The hospital is locked down, we go into emergency response mode, and prepare for incoming casualties.”

Nonessential appointments are canceled and patients are relocated to other parts of the hospital to free bed space.

Twelve radioactive passengers were assigned symptoms, accepted for treatment, decontaminated and then evaluated, said Jean M. Hickey, head nurse in the Brigham and Women’s emergency department.

Harvard Medical School students volunteered to act as victims and wore tattered clothes to act their parts convincingly.

Brigham and Women’s also received 60 “worried but well” patients, who were not on the aircraft but feared exposure to the radiation.

In addition to treating the victims of the explosion, the hospitals also had to send all the evidence they discovered on to law enforcement agencies, Hamilton said.

“It’s a crime investigation as well,” she said. “It was also a test to see whether we could get patient information back to the airlines, find out where passengers went and confirm the status of victims.”

Because the airlines would be fielding phone calls from worried family members, it is vital that this patient information be relayed back to them.

Drills like these are done regularly in Boston, but this is the first time radioactive scenarios have been involved.

“All of this is relatively new to the hospital, and we felt like we did well,” Hickey said.

Morash agreed that the drill was a success but said improvements will need to be made in order to improve the efficiency of the response to radiation emergencies.

Two issues that will be addressed are protection of hospital employees from radiation and the handling, storage and transport of radioactive material or clothing.

“We need to do more with radioactive activities. You can’t see it, feel it or touch it, but we have to be wary of it,” Morash said.

A debriefing of all parties involved will be held in two weeks in order to critique the drill.

Medical students and hospital staff were not the only Harvard affiliates to help out with the simulation.

Stephen O’Connor, a Harvard University Police Department officer stationed at the Longwood Medical Campus, volunteered at MASCO’s Joint Operating Center, which is a central command unit that runs during emergencies.

“It was good to see that the organization went well, and how different services in the Longwood area came together for a common cause,” he said.