an unannounced emergency preparedness drill that brought fire engines, emergency responders and dozens of video cameras to Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg on Thursday also will inform a NIST study on human behavior during an evacuation.
the drill started at 1 p.m. and lasted a little more than two hours.
a scenario was laid out by Susan Boettger, Asbury's safety officer:
Water is flooding the basement of the Kindley assisted Living building and elevator service has been cut off. Power is expected to short out within two hours. All 127 residents must be evacuated to the neighboring Wilson Health Care Center skilled nursing facility.
In reality, only about 70 residents agreed to participate in the drill. others stayed in their apartments while 11 fire and rescue agencies practiced evacuating non-ambulatory adults from a six-floor building.
Seventy percent of the residents at Kindley use a wheelchair, cane or other mobility device, Boettger said.
the scenario was modeled after the 2006 flood of Charter House, a high-rise apartment building for seniors in Silver Spring, which left more than 200 residents displaced for four months. the county was criticized for poor communication during that evacuation.
Agnes Gourlay, 96, was evacuated Thursday from her sixth-floor apartment by three firefighters using a special wheelchair made for descending stairs; its track system allowed responders to push evacuees down the stairs on their backs.
"It was a wild ride, but I enjoyed it," Gourlay laughed after sitting down with a drink of water in the health care center lounge. "the gentlemen were so kind and gentle."
Emergency responders were not told the evacuation was a drill before they entered the building so initial response times would more closely resemble a real emergency.
All evacuees were taken out of the building through one of three stairwells, each of which had been outfitted with six National Institute of Standards and Technology video cameras.
Researchers will review the videos and record the time each individual first entered the video, the number of people around them, whether they were helping another person, whether they were carrying something or using a handrail and how much space they took in the stairwell, among other measures, said Erica Kuligowski, a fire protection engineer in the fire research division of NIST.
At each floor, researchers will note the occupants' location on the stairs — whether they are traveling on the inside or outside of the corridor.
"we are trying to get an idea of how people are moving and using the stairwell. we were also observing the use of evacuation chairs and how firefighters were assisting people with mobility issues," Kuligowski said.
the research will provide evacuation data to create a scientific foundation for building codes and standards, she said.
the research team already has analyzed nine office and residential building evacuations across the U.S. in buildings from six to 62 stories high. Asbury, the 10th research site, is the second residential building and the first assisted-living facility included. Kuligowski said the program hopes to conduct more drills for analysis in the next two years.
When their research concludes, the team will make recommendations on building specifications such as the size of stairwell landings, width of doors and handrail placement, Kuligowski said.
the research project is funded by the U.S. General Services Administration, which is looking for information to develop new evacuation models and building standards.
Evelyn Brown, a spokeswoman for NIST, said the agency's only expenses for the project are indirect — the time researchers and their equipment spend outside of the office.
Keeping seniors safe
Local agencies also used Thursday's drill to test their procedures, such as training with a unified command, testing stair chairs for future purchase, identifying available resources during crises and learning how to keep seniors safe in an emergency.
Matt Kelleher, special projects facilitator for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue, works full time on senior citizens issues. Exercises such as this one are critical, he said, because Montgomery County is becoming home to many naturally-occurring retirement communities.
"we have a lot of older residents, some lacking mobility, in high-rise buildings," he said. "High-rise buildings do not have stairs in [the residents'] eyes, because they use the elevator. It doesn't become an issue until there's a fire or other emergency in the building."
At the height of the drill, five fire engines, a ladder truck, three ambulances and about 40 fire and rescue responders were on scene, Kelleher said. Responders were pulled from different parts of the county to keep from straining any one area. were the event a real emergency, an EMS task force would have been set up, bringing 10 ambulances and a command bus.
County fire and rescue has about 40 stair chairs total, Kelleher said.
Other participating agencies included the National Task Force on Fire and Life Safety for People with Disabilities, American Red Cross of the National Capital Region, Montgomery County Community Emergency Response Team, Gaithersburg planning and Code and Gaithersburg City Police.
Agencies that sent observers or participants included the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Office of Health Care Quality and the Life Span Network.
-127 residents of Kindley assisted Living.
-70 residents involved in the drill.
-40 fire and Rescue responders.
-11 agencies responded.
-6 floors in the building.