Past exercise pays dividends for county's emergency response

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Preparation often yields positive results.
   The Carter County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and the county's rescue agencies conducted an emergency response drill in 1999 designed to handle a head-on collision between an automobile and a bus with multiple injuries.
   "We had practiced that emergency drill at the Elizabethton High football stadium," said Jim Burrough, director of the EMA. "Everyone knew exactly where they were going and how to respond to such an incident."
   Six weeks ago, the county's emergency personnel would put gear up for another disaster call -- only this time, the emergency was real.
   Burrough and other county emergency personnel gathered at the Carter County Work Camp in Roan Mountain on Thursday morning to critique rescue response to the head-on collision between an automobile and a prison van from the work camp.
   The accident occurred on the afternoon of April 22 when an Elizabethton woman's vehicle traveling northbound on Highway 19E near Roan Mountain veered across the highway, hit a guardrail and struck head-on a Carter County Work Camp van filled with inmates.
   The driver of the car, 52-year-old Wanda Boone of Elizabethton, was killed while nine inmates and the van's driver sustained injuries ranging from minor lacerations to broken legs.
   The Roan Mountain accident's similarities to the disaster drill were eerie, said Burrough.
   "In the disaster simulation, we had a van filled with 10 injured female soccer players," he said. "In the accident itself, we had 10 people from the prison riding in the van who were injured.
   "In the simulation, the driver of the vehicle was killed. The real accident also tragically resulted in the death of the driver of the car," he added.
   The Carter County and Avery County rescue squads transported several prisoners to either Sycamore Shoals Hospital or the Johnson City Medical Center.
   "Everyone was right where they were supposed to be," said Burrough. "We had brought in ambulances from North Carolina through the mutual aid agreements. Wings Air Rescue arrived and transported the critically injured."
   Approximately 120 fire, rescue and law enforcement personnel responded to the Roan Mountain accident, he said.
   "We had never worked with the state prison system before, which was a learning experience," said Burrough, of procedures followed when involving injured inmates from a state prison facility.
   "Guards rode in every ambulance with the prisoners who were being transported."
   Burrough said an analysis of the response did find some difficulties with radio communication due to the geographic remoteness of where the accident happened.
   He said a possible solution would be a link-up between radio towers on Roan, Holston and Buffalo mountains to permit more lucid broadcasting.
   A separate emergency channel to allow emergency rescue units to communicate and keep regular police radio traffic open was also a priority the EMA hoped to see realized, Burrough added.
   The EMA recently received a $50,000 homeland security grant that could be used to improve the county's emergency infrastructure.
   "If you had something separate, you could go to that channel and keep the day to day operations going," he said. "In that situation, it can be chaos on the radio."