Hospitals were ready for disaster

Plum Creek fire

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As smoke billowed out from Plum Creek’s Medium Density Fiberboard plant in Columbia Falls on Tuesday afternoon, people around the Flathead Valley waited with bated breath, searching social media and news sites for any update.

At local hospitals, doctors, nurses and staffers quickly marshaled forces to prepare for what could have been a huge disaster.

No serious injuries came from the explosion and ensuing fire — there were only a few people with minor smoke inhalation and all 68 people working at the sprawling seven-acre plant were evacuated safely.

Initial reports, however, had indicated 60 people were unaccounted for.

The emergency response at the scene in Columbia Falls involved 70 people from 14 different agencies.

Frank Garner, head of Kalispell Regional Medical Center security, said the hospital’s incident response team was ready to go by the time the all-clear signal came through.

“We had the incident command system up and running,” he said. “And we were prepared to call in additional resources if need be.”

Kalispell Regional has a transport ambulance and the ALERT helicopter, but kept those close to home while ambulance organizations such as Three Rivers EMS went to the Plum Creek incident.

Bill Boyd, Kalispell Regional’s clinical safety officer and emergency planner, said the total mobilization and preparations took between 15 and 18 minutes. This was in spite of all of Western Montana’s emergency planners attending a conference in Missoula.

“4 o’clock in the afternoon is probably a pretty good time for something like this,” he said. “Two in the morning? That would take longer to get ready.”

Even though the initial report was just a “heads up,” staffers (and a quickly phoned Boyd) began to take stock of what was available and what would be needed to respond appropriately. The command staff, including a liaison officer, a public information officer and a safety officer, prepared to communicate with other agencies, the media and with arriving services.

“We also were trying to confirm information,” Boyd said. “We had been practicing the best way to monitor social media, including looking at the Daily Inter Lake’s Facebook page.”

If the need arose, every available transport would have been deployed from local agencies.

“You prepare for anything,” Garner said. “We don’t know how many people might come in. We don’t have that luxury. Whether it be 20, 50 or 100 casualties, we have to be ready.”

That’s where triage comes in. Doctors and nurses can separate injured by level of trauma. “Green” patients are injured but not in a life-threatening manner.

Others who require immediate surgery or burn treatment are prioritized. In this way, the hospitals of the Flathead Valley can take an influx of injured patients.

North Valley Hospital had similar levels of preparedness, said Catherine Todd, the Whitefish hospital’s director of community relations.

“Within 30 minutes of being notified of the incident and potential for a large number of injuries, NVH ‘stood up’ its Hospital Command Center,” she wrote. “Began calling in additional staff (physicians and nurses) to handle incoming wounded; and contacted North Valley Professional Center in Columbia Falls and other community clinics to help coordinate care of the injured.”

Liaisons were dispatched both to the scene in Columbia Falls and to the Kalispell hospital so North Valley could coordinate with other emergency medical services. The Red Cross was notified and both a family assistance center and media staging area were set up.

Garner said the quick response of emergency services to Plum Creek and the preparations by “more than a handful” of medical professionals at Kalispell Regional could make the difference in a disaster.

The county trains for just such an occurrence at least once a year with a mass casualty incident. This year the scenario involved a plane crash-landing at Glacier Park International Airport.

“They way we prepared for that is how we prepared for the incident” Tuesday, Garner said. “There are a lot of similarities between the two. That preparation is exactly what we should be doing. I think this county does a very good job at being prepared.”

North Valley Hospital has smaller-scale disaster preparedness drills it conducts at least twice a year.

So even though the all-clear was given an hour after the fire erupted, the Flathead Valley’s hospitals were ready to deal with any workers or firefighters if the unthinkable were to happen.

Reporter Ryan Murray may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at

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