PSWS nursing students carry out a mock disaster drill on the campus.

Disaster drill on campus prepares nursing students for real-world medical challenges

PSWS Nursing Instructor Linda McAndrew organized a mock disaster drill for students in the campus' nursing program. Nursing students and faculty, area emergency personnel, first responders and even campus alumni participated. By: Kelly Frey

Preparing for the worst is a daunting but necessary part of many professions, especially for medical personnel and first responders, and knowing how to respond in a crisis can be the difference between life and death.

With that in mind, and wanting nursing students at Penn State Worthington Scranton to gain as much real-world experience as possible, Nursing Instructor Linda McAndrew organized a full-fledged disaster drill earlier this year on campus. The event taught students how to prioritize chaos during an emergency event.

“Part of the curriculum for nursing students is education on the role of nursing in disaster preparedness,” McAndrew said. “ When graduates are hired, part of their professional orientation is related to disaster management. This drill simulated what nurses might experience in their nursing careers.”

Meredith Caldwell, a 2016 nursing graduate, said there was a lot of excitement surrounding the event, as there were two different mock disasters for the students to contend with, as well as a variety of roles to play -- in order to allow them to practice their skills. 

Outside of the campus’  Multipurpose Building, students had to handle a mock bomb drill where they were forced to practice prioritization, using what they had learned about establishing a chain of command during emergency situations.

Caldwell’s role for this exercise was using make-up on the “patients” to replicate injuries they received by the “explosion” making the scenario appear as true to life as possible.

She then participated in the second disaster drill event inside the Multipurpose building where a "fire" had occurred in an Intensive Care Unit. Her role in this scenario was that of a patient, lying on a hospital bed in need of care, while other students practiced their nursing skills to both care for her and rescue her.

In both scenarios, students rotated cycles, taking turns being victims or patients, and nurses taking care of victims.

Local companies also got involved in the disaster drill – making it appear as though some type of disaster had actually happened, and also highlighting for the students how different agencies work together in such an event to ensure the most efficient and best course of providing aid and assistance. 

Cocciardi and Associates provided the disaster victim tags to emulate real injuries and vital signs, in addition to providing acting directions for the victims.

The United States Army provided equipment such as liters and emergency medical supplies for the students use in managing the victims’ injuries.

The Lackawanna County Emergency Management Agency provided the Mobile Command Bus to house a command center for the outside event command staff.  EMA Director Rich Barbolish lent his expertise in guiding the students to make decisions regarding the outside victims and developing media statements throughout the event.

Emergency Medical Services of Northeast PA’s Ed Quinn provided expertise in guiding student decision-making in the internal event regarding the evacuation of ICU patients to a safe area and preparing a media statement.

Commonwealth Health Emergency Medical Services’ Greg Moran, Nathan Truit and Rick Rogalewicz brought their Mass Casualty Incident Trailer, along with expertise in guiding student triage decisions, for the external explosion event.

Local ABC affiliate WNEP -- TV 16’s Jon Meyer provided actual media coverage of the drill, which was broadcast on that evening’s local newscasts, as well as working with students assigned to the role of public information officers -- giving professional feedback on the effectiveness of their statements and explaining the role of the media.

He stated in his news report, which was broadcast after the disaster drill, that he and his news crew helped add more chaos for the students to handle, which added even more realistic conflicts for the students to face during the staged emergency events.

PSWS alumni even got into the mix with nursing alumni John Conoboy and Margaret Haven working with McAndrew and the students to organize and carry out the event.

“I definitely feel as though this training helped me in the event of a disaster,” Haven said. “I spent four years in the Army as a combat medic so I have experience with mass-casualty events from a military standpoint, which is why I was in charge of overseeing the triage aspect of this training.  I enjoyed learning about how it differs in the civilian setting, since this is where I will be working as a registered nurse.”

Haven had one very important piece of advice for future students, and that is to not forget they are nurses.  "Even during a chaotic even such as a disaster, we are still nurses first so we must always keep in mind patient safety and care first."

Her favorite part of the drill was exposing other students to this type of situation. "Even though it is impossible to [fully] simulate a real disaster, I believe everyone involved in this drill learned something from it.  My fellow students now have some exposure to the workings of a command center along, with the role of the hospital nurses during a disaster.  I would also like to commend Linda McAndrew -- she put all of this together for us and it would not have been possible without her.  She is a great nurse educator and I truly enjoyed working alongside her to make this training happen!”

This event is just the latest reflecting the incredible growth and opportunities available through Penn State Worthington Scranton.

Last year, Nursing Instructor Justina Ferguson arranged for a Life Flight helicopter to land at the campus for the nursing students to explore. The arrival of the helicopter allowed students to meet the Life Flight crew and learn first-hand about the challenges faced when caring for patients in flight. It opened students to the variety of opportunities surrounding them as nursing students and even allowed the students to explore new possibilities available to them with their degree.

These new, hands-on learning events are just some of the many ways that Penn State Worthington Scranton’s faculty, in nursing and other curriculums, are working to make their programs more innovative and relevant, and giving their students real-world experiences in the process.