A school bus full of young people. A sedan. A mini-van.
A horrific, three-vehicle crash with 28 injuries—two of them fatal.
Rowan junior Zack Kooker, 20, was first on the scene. Suddenly, the first lieutenant on Rowan’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) was in charge.
“I’ve been taught,” he said, “that if you train enough, you will respond to your training.”
That was the point of the incident, which actually was a mass casualty drill, a massive, complicated training exercise organized by Rowan and Gloucester County EMS units.
Held on a magnificent Saturday morning on the campus of Rowan’s South Jersey Technology Park, the drill tested the training, coordination—and mettle—not only of Rowan’s student-led EMS volunteers, but, also, of fire, police, and EMS workers from throughout Gloucester County.
Rowan students and community members, including a large contingent from Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity, volunteered to serve as accident victims with broken bones, airway obstructions, internal damages and other injuries. The bus driver and the driver of the mini-van were both “killed” in the crash scenario. The driver of the sedan was “ejected” from his vehicle and landed some 70 feet from his car. All of the “injured” were transported to local hospitals.
Prepared to respond
Born into a family of lifesavers, Kooker, served as incident commander, for the Level 3 mass casualty incident. Should an accident of that magnitude happen on or near Rowan’s campus, Kooker and his fellow EMS crew members will be even more prepared to respond—and serve—as will all first responders involved, said Vernon Howery, chief of Rowan EMS and Public Safety Communications for the Department of Public Safety.
Rowan EMS and Gloucester County EMS worked together to stage the drill, which drew rescue workers and police officers from Rowan, Mantua, Deptford, Glassboro, Ewan (Harrison Township), Pitman, Westville and Washington Township, as well as emergency medical technicians from Accucare Transport, Inspira Paramedics and On Time Transport. The Mantua school district also participated, lending the school bus and driver, Bruce Keefe, of Mount Royal.
“Our students actually ran this,” said Howery, surveying the crash scene as emergency workers cleaned up debris. “We had some students playing pretty significant roles. Our incident commander was surprised. He didn’t know coming in what role he was going to fill.
“The really important part of this is getting all of these people to work together.”
While there were areas to improve upon—the staging of rescue vehicles and the setting up of the triage areas, for instance—to casual observers, the emergency efforts looked to run like clockwork. Literally.
The first emergency vehicle arrived at 8:21 a.m. and the last one left at 9:25 a.m. Within an hour, the emergency workers were able to treat and transport all of the victims, a phenomenal showing.
“It was huge that we were able to get everybody off the scene in less than an hour,” said Andy Lovell, chief of Gloucester County EMS. “That’s almost unheard of.”
Patients were transported to emergency departments at Kennedy University Hospital-Washington Township and Inspira Medical Center-Woodbury.
'We were the first ones in’
In the triage area, sophomore biology major Ben Dafilou, crew chief for Rowan EMS, deftly worked with the injured, who were categorized into red, yellow and green areas. Six individuals in the red area had serious, life-threatening injuries requiring immediate care. The yellow area—three people—had serious injures requiring treatment. The rest were in the green area—patients requiring treatment, but not with critical injuries.
Dafilou, an aspiring emergency room physician who intends to apply to Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, worked up a sweat as he moved from patient to patient…but kept his cool.
“If you panic, everyone else will panic. It’s essential to remain calm,” Dafilou said. “I was the first EMT on the bus and used triage tags to help categorize patients. It was important to know what we were dealing with.
“While the non-critical patients walked off the bus, I basically carried the critical patients out on my back to the triage area, where they could be more effectively treated. As drills go, this was pretty real. We were the first ones in.”
‘People worked together’
The rescue efforts drew kudos from a number of emergency workers, including Cooper University Health Care physicians Dr. Gerard Carroll and Dr. Rick Hong. Cooper provides medical direction to Rowan EMS volunteers.
“It was a huge scene and not something they deal with regularly,” said Hong, division head of EMS/Disaster Medicine at Cooper. “To be put in this position and be functional is amazing. People worked together. I thought that was a huge strength.”
After the injured were transported, EMS volunteer Paul Comber, sophomore biology major from Washington Township, had the chance to try out the Jaws of Life on the crushed mini-van with the Mantua Fire Department. That’s not something an EMS worker would usually do, but it was beneficial, said Comber, who wants to be a physician.
“A lot of times, EMTs are right beside firefighters at a crash scene,” said Comber, who was the staging officer for the drill. “It’s good to have a sense of how they do their work.”
Even though he wound up a “casualty” at the wheel, Keefe, a fifth-year driver for Mantua’s school district gained an appreciation for the rescue workers’ efforts as well.
“These drills are so important,” said Keefe, who drives pre-kindergarteners on up to high school seniors. Emergency workers pulled him from the bus on a long board, carrying him to the triage unit.
“They said, ‘Sir? Sir? Are you OK?’” Keefe said. “And then somebody said, ‘We’ve got to get him out of here. He’s a dead man.’ I didn’t realize they were going to carry me out.
“It’s great that they take the time to do something like this. It’s absolutely vital.”
Keefe didn’t even mind being declared “dead” at the scene. As he watched the hectic scene unfold, he realized, with pride, that every young person on his bus survived the terrible accident.
Moving forward, Kooker saw room for improvement, something that will benefit the work of Rowan EMS in the future, he said.
“There were definitely things I missed, things I realized after the fact,” the electrical engineering major said. “But you definitely learn from mistakes. It’s fun to help people.”
Rowan’s highly trained EMS squad, one of the longest serving university EMS units in the state, is comprised of 60 unpaid volunteers, students who respond to medical emergencies on and around Rowan’s campus. Thirty-five of the students are certified EMTs.
For more on the squad, visit http://www.rowan.edu/safety/ems/ems.html.