IOWA CITY, Iowa - Tucked inside Coca-Cola-shaped trashcans that ring Carver Hawkeye Arena, authorities on Wednesday found devices wired to disseminate toxic gas into the facility capable of holding more than 7,500 people.
Fortunately, the mock devices were planted as part of a statewide emergency preparedness exercise spearheaded by the State of Iowa Weapons of Mass Destruction Response Team. Emergency responders from 10 state agencies participated in the day-long drill on the University of Iowa campus, and dozens of volunteers played the role of victim in the exercise that had them stand under a decontamination hose outside Carver on Wednesday morning before being transported to the UI Hospitals and Clinics emergency room.
"We have spent eight months preparing for this," said Clint Powell, survey team leader with the 71st Civil Support Team for the Iowa National Guard. "We're getting good training value out of this already, and it's not even 10 a.m."
To stage the drill, organizers wired trashcans in Carver with false gas-disseminating devices and then staged a bomb outside the arena aimed at creating more casualties. Once outside, volunteers participating in Wednesday's drill stood under a decontaminating device – which looked like a massive shower – to clean off any toxic fumes.
Faux patients went to the UI's Hospitals and Clinics with cards detailing symptoms for emergency responders.
The goal of the exercise, Powell said, was to practice communication procedures and agency coordination, employ equipment that responders don't always use, and evaluate what's working and what's not.
"We hope this raises awareness about the things we could do better and the things we're already doing well," Powell said.
Iowa City's Carver arena was chosen as the drill site, according to Powell, because it's among the biggest in the state and can hold thousands of people.
"It's a top candidate for an attack," he said. "It's in the top 10 for sure."
Iowa City and its agencies participate in several exercises like the one Wednesday each year because, Powell said, a real disaster presents a "no-fail environment."
This week's drill involved about 25 volunteers and enough responders to total about 100 participants. UI senior Bridgette Hunemuller, hugging her knees while soaking wet on a yellow tarp in the Carver parking lot, said she volunteered to participate as a victim in the drill because she believes in the value of practice.
"I think it's really important to make sure all the teams are prepared," said Hunemuller, a member of the UI Emergency Medical Services Student Interest Organization.
Moments earlier, Hunemuller had stood under the decontaminating hose and then rattled off her symptoms to an EMS responder.
"I'm pre-med, and I thought it would be a good experience to see how it would go if I had to help and be a part of it," she said.
The drill started around 8:45 Wednesday and was scheduled to continue until 4 p.m. In an effort to make it as realistic as possible, UI spokesman Tom Moore said, exercise organizers kept details about the drill confidential from many of the men and woman participating.
The exercise used some emergency room space at the university hospitals, and Moore said the hospitals are no stranger to disaster drills. They conduct two full-scale exercises every year, and Moore said the Joint Commission – a national group that accredits and certifies more than 19,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States – rated the hospitals as having one of the finest emergency preparedness programs in the country.
"We all need to be prepared," Moore said. "These things can happen when you least expect it."
Participants in Wednesday's exercise include the Iowa City Fire Department, Johnson County Hazardous Materials Team, the Johnson County Emergency Management Agency, Johnson County Ambulance, the UI Department of Public Safety, UI Hospitals and Clinics, the State Hygienic Laboratory, Iowa, the Iowa National Guard's 71st Civil Support Team, the Salvation Army and the State of Iowa Weapons of Mass Destruction HazMat Team.