CULLOWHEE – The clang of fire alarms and the smell of acrid smoke billowing out of the Stillwell Building at Western Carolina University signaled the start of a dramatic disaster drill that tested the readiness of a host of emergency responders.
The drill, which lasted for several hours on the morning of Saturday, May 22, was the first-ever conducted at Western and involved such diverse offices as the campus police, student affairs, counseling, health services and facilities management, as well as Chancellor John Bardo and members of his executive staff.
The practice session also involved neighboring police, fire, rescue and emergency management agencies from as close as Cullowhee and Sylva and as far away as Asheville. Student volunteers played the parts of victims and concerned relatives. There was even a make-believe CNN reporter with a cameraman to cover the action.
Within minutes of the first alarm, local rescue personnel were on the scene. In spite of the day’s heat, they climbed into sweltering body suits and helmets, strapped on heavy tanks of air and searched the smoky building. Finding victims of a mock cloud of toxic smoke, they quickly assembled a decontamination unit, summoned a medical helicopter for evacuation, and processed student volunteers smeared with fake blood and suffering from smoke inhalation, shock and hysteria. Ambulances carried make-believe victims to the campus health center to simulate mass casualties and even one death.
By noon, it was all over and the participants exchanged congratulations and compared notes over boxed lunches and cold drinks. The grade was pretty good, but certainly not perfect.
“The purpose was not to see how well we could coordinate our response to a disaster,” said Bob Scott, executive officer with the university police department, who organized the exercise, “but to see what we need to work on.”
Everyone agreed that there were plenty of items on the “to-do” list. There also was a strong sense of pride in being one of the first campuses in The University of North Carolina system to undertake such an important project just in case the next disaster is not just a drill, Scott said.