Volunteer Dixie Zimmerman (left) is sprayed down by UCLA employee Myo Nyont during the decontamination drill at the UCLA Medical Center on Arizona Avenue on Wednesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

MIDCITY — It’s a worst case scenario for local emergency responders: A dirty bomb explodes on the streets of Downtown Santa Monica during a crowded event, causing hundreds of casualties, severely injuring many more and releasing dangerous chemicals into the environment.

That was the challenge at hand Wednesday afternoon for the UCLA Health System’s emergency response team and emergency workers from the Santa Monica Fire and Police departments in a disaster simulation drill at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital.

With the L.A. Marathon expected to bring tens of thousands of visitors to town this Sunday, organizers said it was a timely exercise that will help emergency professionals hone their skills in case of the real thing.

The hospital regularly conducts disaster drills, but Wednesday’s event was notable for the scale of the disaster simulated and the number of agencies involved. In addition to local responders, members of the Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach Fire departments, as well as other emergency workers, took part.

While student volunteers posing as severely injured survivors huddled under a gazebo awaiting the start of the drill, nursing unit manager Elizabeth George prepped her team for the influx of patients.

“We get to practice and hopefully get better prepared to manage a disaster situation,” she said.

The health system’s emergency management team had set up a command center in a conference room and was running through the motions of coordinating the disaster response, while outside the workers on the front-line assembled an inflatable “decontamination tent” where unlucky volunteers were being hosed down.

Dr. Wally Ghurabi, the medical director of the hospital’s emergency department, said the large-scale exercise, which involved between 70 and 100 emergency personnel, was worthwhile especially in light of this weekend’s marathon.

The scale of the event means any emergency would require good communication between agencies, he added.

William Dunne, who directs the UCLA Health System’s office of emergency preparedness, said the drill helps ensure the hospital’s ability to provide sufficient capacity for care in case of a major disaster.

Having plans in place for a disaster is important, “but until you test them you don’t really see the holes in the planning process,” Dunne said.


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