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South End School incident report

Emergency services at Carterton’s South End School last year. PHOTO/FILE

Learnings from what loomed as a mass-casualty event

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Firemen in breathing apparatus worked hard to make decontamination a game for children caught up in last year’s response to a possible chemical incident at South End School in Carterton.

But it was a tough game. The children faced cold, high-pressure showers designed for decontaminating firemen in heavy protective clothing

That’s one of the pictures painted by Fire and Emergency’s report into last September’s response to the possible chemical contamination of South End School.

The report highlighted the challenges emergency services had while responding to an incident where children were showing signs of illness.

But the chemical could not be identified. It was later found to be the stink from a compost heap on a neighbouring property.

“In all, 167 people were triaged, making this the largest mass-casualty event attended since the Wahine disaster in 1968,” the report said.

The report details the challenge of the decontamination process for the children – four were decontaminated using a Portaflex shower, and 27 were decontaminated using a decontamination corridor.

“There was some difficulty in getting the children through an unpleasant cold shower, so firefighters reassured them by making the decontamination experience into a game, as well as assisting each child by walking through with them.

“This meant it took some time to decontaminate the four worst-affected children who were the only ones to go through the Portaflex shower.”

The report stated that one mother became “very animated and irate which upset the children further”.

“Another parent also became very agitated and was removed by the police.”

The report said decontamination of the most severely-affected children was delayed until the arrival of the Portaflex shower, which is not recommended for public contamination.

“Efforts were made to minimise physical and physiological effects by reducing the water pressure, time in the shower, and providing a change of clothes.”

However, the report notes: “Other methods of emergency contamination could have been considered, including removal of outer clothing, wiping down casualties with cloths, moving casualties to fresh air.”

The tented decontamination corridor also had its issues for crews wearing breathing apparatus who found their visors fogging up.

John Booth.

On the plus side, the report praised the efforts of Carterton Mayor John Booth.

“He became a vital conduit between Fire and Emergency and the parents of the affected children.”

However, communication was lacking in other areas.

“Communication with the Public Health Officer appears to have been ineffective.”

Commenting on the report, Medical Officer of Health Stephen Palmer had a list of criticisms.

“We were not told Wellington Free Ambulance were cordoned off in the school grounds, and we could not communicate with them,” Palmer said.

“RPH [Regional Public Health] was not consulted prior to decontamination commencing, but were later asked to make a decision to stop. There were no regular inter-agency briefings. It was not possible to undertake a site assessment due to the cordon around the entire school.”

The report also stated that Wairarapa DHB felt they were “working in the dark”, but on Thursday a DHB spokesperson said this was overstating the situation.

They had participated in conference calls, they said, but one thing learned from the incident was that having someone on site – either a communications or clinical staff member – would have been beneficial.

– with rnz.co.nz

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