More than 50 students ‘decontaminated’ at North Devon District Hospital in training exercise

More than 50 Petroc students had to be decontaminated at North Devon District Hospital after a “mysterious substance” was released on a school bus.

Luckily though, this was just a rehearsal. Staff at Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust rehearsed its plans to deal with incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosive, or other hazardous materials. 53 students acted as casualties and dozens of firefighters from Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service took part in the exercise.

Decontamination equipment was set up outside the front of the accident and emergency department. Staff wearing full-bodied, yellow protective suits worked inside the Trust’s decontamination tents to wash the pretend casualties.

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The fire service also brought along their equipment, which could facilitate much more casualties, and sent through small groups of students to be “decontaminated” by showers in the large tents, before putting on safe green suits. In a real life contamination situation, the casualties’ clothes would be taken away for safety reasons.

Ben Collins, emergency planning officer at the Trust, organised this event with the fire service.

He said: “Every three years we put on an emergency situation like this with the emergency services to use the equipment we wouldn’t usually use and put it into practice. Petroc has been really supportive.

“This is a learning process for us all to find out what works and what doesn’t. It has gone really well today.”

Heading into the tent for decontamination

Heading into the tent for decontamination

Ian Donovan, station manager at Okehampton Fire Station, is responsible for Devon’s incident response unit based in Okehampton, a national resource to respond to any incident involving mass decontamination.

He said: “When we are called to an incident, two teams will go directly to the scene and the third will go to the hospital to ensure the hospital and members of the public do not get contaminated. We are testing that system today at the hospital in Barnstaple.

“The scenario today is we got a call from the police to assist the hospital because there were reports of 50 people on a bus who had been contaminated by a substance which was burning their skin. I have assistance from other teams who detect what the substance is so I know what procedures to carry out.

Inside the tent

Inside the tent

“It is a learning curve on our part. If we had been here on a busy day and had lots of ambulances coming in it would have been much more difficult, and we would have put more procedures in safe to ensure the safety of the public and the patients.”

Andy Ibbs, director of operations and strategy at the Trust, said plans like these are a key part of making sure teams are prepared for emergency situations and services are resilient.

He said: “We need to be there for our patients and communities whenever they need it, whatever the circumstances we face.

“Plans like these are a key part of making sure we are prepared for emergency situations and our services are resilient.”

Ian Donovan, fire incident commander, with part of his response team

Ian Donovan, fire incident commander, with part of his response team

The Trust has a number of emergency and business continuity plans, which are in place to make sure it is well prepared to respond to any disruptive challenges or emergencies, such as cold weather, heatwaves and incidents involving hazardous materials.

Mr Ibbs added: “Thank you to the students from Petroc and to Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service for giving their time to help with this training exercise.”