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Embassy readiness: Moscow stages post's largest emergency exercise.

By the time early December rolls around, most offices are busily planning holiday luncheons and parties. But at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the sound of jingle bells was overpowered by a deep-voiced warning to "Duck and cover! Get under your desk!" as employees took part in the largest mass casualty exercise ever conducted at post.

On Dec. 4, Marine Security Guards (MSGs) took control of the embassy as it engaged simultaneously in nearly two hours of exercises involving mass casualties, a chem-bio attack, medical first responders' training and a simulated intruder scenario.

"Normally, only one of those exercises would be conducted at a time," said Assistant Regional Security Officer Chad Scheatzle. "This was probably the biggest exercise ever held in [the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs], period. It involved the entire embassy overall and intimately involved 100 people."

Planning began in the summer of 2012 for a small exercise to train medical first responders. However, the offices involved in emergency training at post decided to expand that exercise to include all the types of emergency training normally conducted at post.

"You can never be prepared for every emergency, but if you can combine them it's as realistic as we can get, because in real life there would never be just one section involved in an emergency," explained Foreign Service Health Practitioner Tammy Young.

The planning team, composed of the Regional Security Office (RSO), Medical Office (MED), MSGs and the ChemBio team, developed a scenario in which a bomb goes off in the chancery's cafeteria. The RSO team then cleared the area to ensure it was safe for the first responders to enter.

Subsequently, the simulated chem-bio incident occurred. By that time, said Scheatzle, "the Marines at Post One had time to go through security video footage and saw someone put a bag down in the cafeteria that held the 'bomb,' so they knew that person--the intruder--was in the chancery. So, in about 40 minutes, all the scenarios had been keyed up and were active, with four simulated events taking place together."

Ambassador Michael McFaul and Deputy Chief of Mission Sheila Gwaltney supported the exercise, and the unprecedented closure of the embassy for its duration, because, said Ambassador McFaul, "It's important for everyone, both Russian and American employees, to get accustomed to working together in an emergency situation.

"Only something of this size and breadth would be able to expose any gaps we have in our training and planning," he said. "I'm a great believer in muscle memory when it comes to training."

Creating the most realistic scenes possible took staging and makeup wizardry. Embassy volunteers playing the role of victims in the simulated bomb blast were given a makeover using moulage kits supplied by MED and the MSGs. Victims used plastic body parts and colored wax to simulate gashes, wounds and burns. Some had IV bags filled with fake blood that they squeezed to make it look like they were bleeding, and some were even covered with shrapnel pieces.

The Facilities Maintenance team turned the cafeteria into a simulated bomb blast scene with overturned tables and chairs, wires hanging from the ceiling and debris everywhere.

"We didn't know the situation ahead of time," said first responder Dasha Bulycheva, an employee in General Services Office's Customer Service Center. "In training, we saw lots of videos of emergencies and disasters, and they did a good job of imitating a real situation. People were moaning, and there was blood everywhere. Sometimes I forgot that it wasn't real."

For Moscow's MED team, the ability to run an exercise of this size was a tremendous boost to the effectiveness of their training program. "We had 30 patients," said Young. "In a normal exercise, you'd maybe have five. But the more patients there are, the more experience you get with triage and the more you realize how chaotic a real scene would be."

Management Officer Paul Blankenship played one of the victims, and said he was ready when the first responders burst into the cafeteria. "I was trying to add to the chaos, to make it loud and noisy and make them react. We started yelling 'help me, help me.' They took me to a triage point, and I tried to put my weight on them and play it real heavy as if I had a leg injury," he said.

"In a typical emergency, you treat the most severely injured first," Young explained. "In a mass casualty [event], you want to save the most people that you can by treating the least injured first. The number of victims is usually far greater than the medical support available, so first responders have to integrate closely with the medical team."

The point of training is to "learn what everyone's role is so they can naturally fall into it in case of emergency," said the Nurse Tressa Silberberg of the MED Unit. "It keeps people from panicking and makes them feel less helpless." She said everyone's role is important, from the runner who gathers supplies, to the person responsible for the disposition of patients who are sent in ambulances to local hospitals, to the medical providers.

Embassy contract physician Dr. Corinne Giesemann said the exercise was extraordinarily helpful. "To have an outline and strategy on how we'll communicate, what resources are available and how to interface was very helpful," she said. "In a situation like that, you wouldn't have enough time to think it through. It was pretty realistic, and you know it isn't real, but you could still sense the adrenaline flowing."

During the post-exercise debriefing, participants voiced their thoughts and the planners discussed lessons learned. "The themes were communications, giving sitreps to Post One and travel in the embassy during lockdown," Scheatzle said.

The exercise generated follow-up actions. The MED unit, for example, will give first responders additional supplies, and medical providers will have blue vests to distinguish them from first responders.

From the RSO point of view, the exercise was a success. "You don't rise to the occasion, you fall back to training .." said Scheatzle. "Once the whistle blew, it was clockwork."

By Stacy MacTaggert, deputy press attache, U.S. Embassy in Moscow
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Author:MacTaggert, Stacy
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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