Local News

Ammonia response mostly smooth for medical community

SITKA, ALASKA
Sitka EMS transported 15 people to medical care at Sitka’s two hospitals. Eight of the patients wound up at Sitka Community Hospital.

Chief financial officer Lee Bennett was the administrator on duty that night.

“We didn’t get a big influx,” he said. “The patients came through. We were able to triage, to treat, to move them into appropriate settings before the next patients arrived. There was never a point in time during this incident that we were overburdened or anything along those lines.”

Still, he says not everything went smoothly: The hospital set up its decontamination tent as a precaution, but whoever used it last hadn’t stored it correctly. But mainly, Bennett says the biggest problem was the flow of information between the scene of the incident and the hospitals.

“We were learning of things simply by monitoring the radios, whereas I think there could have been a little better direct communication to say ‘Here’s what we think.,’” Bennett said. “But I think part of the problem was EMS wasn’t sure, because of the magnitude of what they were potentially facing, and the geographics of it.”

Sitka Fire Chief Dave Miller said that was exactly the issue.

“It would have been great to know that there were only going to be 15 or 20 patients total, but we didn’t even know that until later on in the scene,” Miller said. “Any time anybody’s going to receive patients and when the initial call comes in and there are possibly 240 walking patients, we don’t know what we’re going to have at that time. We respond out there and it takes us 10 or 15 minutes to find out what actually happened on the scene.”

Miller says for most of the people transported to the hospital, symptoms of ammonia exposure began to subside en route. There were three who told responders they’d walked into the cloud. They were decontaminated on scene, before being taken to the hospital.

“We sort of hid them from view and had them strip down, basically, and gave them a shower from the fire truck,” he said. “A shower from our fire truck, the water is about 70 degrees, so it’s a little chilly, but it’s a lot warmer than doing it from a fire hydrant. It wasn’t too bad anyway. We try to do that before we contaminate the ambulances, the hospital, and all of those things. But we had such a minimal number of those things we didn’t really set up our tent to give them showers from the tent.”

Miller says overall, he’s pleased with the response. In addition to the fire department, the U.S. Coast Guard and Sitka Mountain Rescue sent personnel to help at the scene. He also says Silver Bay Seafoods handled the incident well, working to make sure everyone was accounted for and helping the fire department respond effectively to the incident.
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