Vermont Disaster Drill Features Bus Crash and Plague Outbreak

More crises are coming in the 10-day exercise billed as the largest Vermont has ever seen

Vermont's largest-ever disaster preparedness drill is underway. Operation Vigilant Guard, as the exercise is known, has more than 5,000 participants spread across 50 sites statewide.

"It always identifies areas for improvement and gaps we can plug," said Dawn LeBaron of the University of Vermont Medical center in Burlington, one of the organizations participating in the 10-day exercise.

For one part of the simulation Wednesday morning, a bus rollover sent a surge of victims to the UVM Medical Center’s emergency department. Actors played the part of patients.

Then, as doctors and nurses worked to triage those drill participants, LeBaron took a phone call alerting the hospital that, in a surprise twist to the drill, a man elsewhere was showing signs of pneumonic plague.

"Every time we do it, we learn something new," LeBaron said of large-scale exercises that test the hospital's response capabilities.

Meanwhile, in South Burlington, the Vermont National Guard and the Vermont Department of Health were practicing how they would distribute medicine to respond to the plague outbreak outlined in the drill, which the script said infected 6,000 Vermonters.

"This is an exercise we hope to never have to see, but we absolutely need to be prepared for," said Dr. Harry Chen, Vermont's health commissioner.

The catastrophic emergencies, including a scripted structure collapse, are expected to continue mounting throughout the course of the drill.

While such an assault of crisis after crisis seems unimaginable to many, Chris Herrick, Vermont's emergency management and homeland security director, told necn that complicated and sometimes stressful drills can help build inter-agency communication.

Such communication is critical in a real emergency, Herrick noted.

Herrick added that real-life crises, such as the devastation from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, underscore how severe flooding is a threat Vermont has faced several times in recent years.

"The novelty of this is just the immensity of it," Herrick said of Operation Vigilant Guard. "Vermonters should know we'll be much better prepared. How do we measure that? I'm not really sure, but those of us involved know we'll be much better at what we do after going through something like this."

Other participants include a power company, town governments and fire departments, transportation officials, agriculture officials, the Red Cross, and hospitals statewide.

The approximate price tag for the 10-day exercise is $1.4 million. According to spokespeople for the Vermont National Guard and Vermont Emergency Management, the funding comes from several federal sources, including U.S. Northern Command, the National Guard Bureau, and a U.S. homeland security grant.

Vigilant Guard is a series of federally-funded catastrophic response drills that have also taken place in other regions of the country.

Vermont’s version of Operation Vigilant Guard continues through August 2.

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