SEBRING – By 10 a.m., five people had died from gunshots, one was critically wounded, four wounded and an officer and the alleged shooter were injured; Highlands Regional Medical Center was closed to the public and the area was surrounded by Highlands County law enforcement officials and emergency management personnel.
By 11 a.m., the hospital was functioning as always and the dead and injured stood up, gathered belongings, got back into their vehicles and headed back to work.
For about an hour and a half Tuesday, Highlands Regional was the site of a county-wide disaster drill, coordinated to give county crisis-response employees, first-responders and staff at Highlands Regional Medical Center a hands-on experience of what would take place in the event of an actual crisis situation.
The emergency preparation event is held twice annually and is required by The Joint Commission for national healthcare and the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration to keep hospital and first-responders ready for action should the need arise.
The exercise was held in real-time as an authentic crisis situation, said Susan Reed, Highlands marketing director, and Nell Hays, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office. Coordinated by Highlands Regional, taking part in the exercise was about 30 personnel members from the sheriff’s office, the Highlands County Health Department, the Sebring Police Department and the Highlands County Emergency Management Office - which includes emergency management services and the county fire-rescue department - and the Sebring Fire Department. It was also observed by Pete McNally, emergency management director for Polk County, Bartow.
The faux crisis situation began around 9:50 a.m., when units from the sheriff’s office and the police department went to call of “shots fired” in the hospital’s emergency room. At 9:56 a.m., she went to gather more information.
About 10 a.m., Hays briefed the media at a public information trailer behind the hospital, 3600 S. Highlands Ave., where she reported an active shooter had entered the emergency room and fired shots. As she spoke at a podium, behind her county emergency response units and officers could be seen securing the ER’s perimeter.
Twenty minutes later, Hays made a second “report,” updating the deaths, wounded, that the wounded suspect was airlifted to a “local hospital” and the wounded officer was in “stable condition.” She said names of victims wouldn’t be released until next-of-kin were notified.
Beside her, Reed, as true-to-life as possible, expressed gratitude for the actions of law enforcement and first-responders.
“We were very grateful we were able to quickly contain it so quickly,” she said, saying the hospital functioned without any “undue disruption.” “We’re grateful we’re able to open so quickly.”
Prior to the event, Reed said participants in the drill weren’t told of the scenario beforehand to it would be as authentic as it could be in a real-life situation. She said they wore vests with identification badges identifying them as participants. In addition, informational signs were set up informing the public a drill was occurring.
Reed said the goal of the semi-annual emergency drill is to look at ways to improve response time and actions. She said a report of how the drill went would be sent to the Joint Commission and the Health Care Administrationn.
“it puts into practice what we’d have to do in a true emergency. The goal is to make the exercises as real as possible...so in a real-life situation, we’re prepared and ready,” she said.
The Disaster Drill ended around noon when the participating agencies met with hospital administrators in a debriefing to discuss the morning’s drill, how it functioned and some of its results.
“I think it went very well. I’m sure that we all learned something about what we know and what we can do better,” said Hays.