The situation Friday morning played out like a public safety nightmare come alive.

Tornadoes, hail and straight-line winds struck concerts, water parks and hospital buildings. Storms led to hazardous chemical spills. Sinkholes swallowed buses full of kids.

Thankfully, the scenario was fictional, envisioned by emergency preparedness officials throughout central Indiana. This time, it was all a drill.

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In the case of a disaster, area hospitals will be integral to the safety of and emergency response to the public. But while doctors, nurses and other staff need to be ready to treat the influx of patients, they also have to be prepared in case their own building is affected by the disaster.

Only through planning, year-round training and surprise drills can they be sure that all members of the team are prepared for disaster.

“A lot of communities view hospitals as a safe haven and a place to go to when things are chaotic,” said Diana Leonard, emergency management coordinator at Franciscan St. Francis Health. “They rely on us to always care for them if they’re injured or sick. We have to be sure that we can do that.”

Hospital administrators, department heads, fire and law enforcement all gathered in the basement command center at Franciscan St. Francis Health on Friday. Those in charge had reviewed and prepared for the disaster that was to unfold at the southside hospital for nearly four hours.

In the midst of record heat, tornadoes and severe weather would bombard central Indiana. Straight-line winds of 85 mph would slam into the sixth floor of the hospital, breaking windows and forcing evacuation.

The rush to secure the hospital from the weather would result in the spilling of sulfur dioxide, a chemical that causes breathing distress, creating a toxic cloud.

As part of the simulation, employees would have to move “patients” down two flights of stairs to a secure wing of the hospital. Ambulances would have to be rerouted to another entrance after the emergency room bay was damaged.

“We do this regularly to enhance our preparedness for emergencies,” Leonard said. “We live in central Indiana, so weather is always a concern. We have so many large sporting events that mass casualty incidents, hazardous materials incidents are also a concern.”

Disaster within disaster

Throughout central Indiana, hospitals were participating in drills such as the one at Franciscan St. Francis Health.

The simulations were coordinated by the District 5 Hospital Preparedness Program Committee. Members from eight Indiana counties, including Johnson, all work together on disaster readiness. Johnson Memorial Hospital, Community Hospital South and Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis are all part of the organization.

The group aims to be prepared in times of crisis, emergency and disaster.

At Community Hospital South, the situation called for an influx of patients that resulted from the tornado. To complicate matters, additional people were injured in a shooting, so the hospital staff had to react to a disaster within a disaster.

The hope is that by going through these scenarios, emergency officials can make any real scenarios go a lot smoother, said Elisa Stott, emergency preparedness coordinator for Community Health Network.

“Typically in a disaster like this, you’ll see a lot of injuries. People are trying to see family members who were picked up by ambulances, but they don’t know where they were taken,” she said. “People tend to look at the hospital like the light in the time of disaster.”

One way of doing so is planning large-scale simulations to test readiness. Hospital organizers are given warning that a drill is scheduled for a certain time, but staff members are unaware until it starts.

They don’t give away too many details in advance, since that would negate the benefits, said William Mink, quality manager for Johnson Memorial Hospital.

“We really do have a responsibility towards the community to be prepared in the case of an emergency and protect them. A hospital is one of the places they rely on in case of a disaster, so we have to be prepared,” he said.

Coordinated efforts

The drills allow coordinators to determine how efficiently different departments of the hospital would respond to a disaster. Any aspect that needs improvement can be remedied before an actual emergency arises.

Johnson Memorial Hospital has created an emergency operations plan for these types of situations, which each department is briefed on and practices throughout the year. Readiness tests are given to check and ensure that each area of the hospital knows the plan, Mink said.

Hospital leadership also has gone through Federal Emergency Management Agency training to best direct services in case of disaster.

“We use the same command structure and training that the police, fire and (emergency medical services) do, so that we’re all using the same disaster-response structure in case of a disaster,” Taylor said.

Franciscan St. Francis Health has devised plans for disasters such as hazardous material spills, catastrophic computer outages, a public shooting or a large traffic accident.

Leonard’s job is to dream up the situations and then figure out how all the logistics work in responding to it.

“They call me, ‘Diana Downer’ because I think of the bad stuff that can really happen, and then we plan for it,” she said.

All staff members are versed in the potential dangers, and Leonard will regularly show up in different departments to quiz them on what to do in a particular situation.

“We identify those concerns to us, look at them annually and decide what we want to practice our response to,” Leonard said.

After any disaster situation, either real or a drill, the committee goes back to critique what worked and what needs to be done better, said Carla Taylor, manager of emergency services at Johnson Memorial Hospital.

That’s the only way to truly learn from the results, Stott said.

“That’s the reason we plan and drill, so that when a real event happens, it’s second nature for our team to react to an event,” she said. “We don’t have to stop and think at all.”

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.