Sun Life trains for disaster with firefighters

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Oracle Firefighters, Tri-City Med paramedics and the flight crew from Lifeline work to evacuate a patient at the Oracle-Briggs Heli Spot. John Hernandez | Copper Area News

Checking the ‘victim’ during a training exercise.

Oracle Firefighters confer with a ‘patient’ during a boiler explosion simulation at Sun Life Family Health. John Hernandez | Copper Area News

Copper Area News

A call to 911 is made. A boiler has exploded at a local clinic. There are injuries to patients and personnel. Emergency crews are needed.

Now, to add to the panic: the local fire department only has three firefighters in the station.

The firefighters aren’t sick. There isn’t a staffing issue. This fire department is located in a rural community – staffed with volunteers.

The local police (or sheriff) has an officer en route, but he was on a call elsewhere in the district.

Our first responders aren’t panicking, though. They are more than prepared to handle the situation – with a little help from their neighbors.

Agencies in rural communities have come to rely on their nearby neighbors for back up especially during times of disasters. That trust isn’t something that is just given and received. It’s earned – with hours of training as a team. Fire, police, ambulance crews and even helicopter crews stage scenarios and work the drill as if it is an actuality. Agencies throughout an entire area are involved.

The above scenario was used July 28 in Oracle and San Manuel at the Sun Life Family Health Center facilities. Participating agencies included Sun Life, San Manuel Fire Department, Oracle Fire Department, Tri City Med/Southwest Ambulance and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.

This was the first time Sun Life was involved in such a training and is part of Sun Life preparing its staff to be ready in case there is ever an emergency incident or disaster at one of their facilities.

“Safety is my number one focus,” said Al Gutierrez, director of the San Manuel and Oracle Sun Life facilities. “In every position I have had, safety has always been a priority.”

Gutierrez praised his staff in charge of safety at the health centers, Oscar Flores in San Manuel and Jennifer Sanchez in Oracle. “They are so amazing in what they do,” he said. He said that Flores has been working with Tri-City Med, San Manuel Fire and the Oracle Fire Department and putting a safety plan together.

The training exercise was first held at the San Manuel Sun Life Health Center and in the afternoon at the Oracle Sun Life facility. The simulated disaster was a water heater explosion with injuries of some staff members. Flores and Sanchez acted as incident commanders and made sure staff and patients were evacuated in a timely manner. They briefed the first responders upon their arrival about what had happened. The firefighters then entered the facilities and cleared each building making sure everyone was out of the building including the injured that were then treated by EMTs and paramedics. The exercise received good evaluations.

The training is the first in what will be more simulations to prepare staff in case there should ever be a disaster at one of the facilities. The training brings together first responders who also become familiar with the facilities and the staff they may be working with in responding to an emergency.

At the debriefing Al Gutierrez thanked the first responders for what they do and for their participation. He said, “We are a very, very safe facility and care about the safety of our patients and staff.”

In the Tri-Community (Mammoth, San Manuel and Oracle area), first responders from multiple agencies were put to the test in March 2010 when the Republic Plastics facility caught fire.

A three-alarm fire ripped through the production area of Republic Plastics early March 31, 2010, sending two to hospitals in Tucson.

The fire began around 1 a.m. and the “three-alarm” was sounded at 2:30 a.m. San Manuel, Mammoth and Oracle Fire Departments responded.

Northwest Fire District, Golder Ranch Fire Department and Rural/Metro out of Tucson also sent crews to battle the blaze.

According to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office approximately 15 people were in the building at the time of the fire and all were able to get out.

Two employees were injured in the blaze: one was transported by ambulance to Oro Valley Hospital for smoke inhalation and was released within 24 hours. The second man was flown by helicopter to University Medical Center for smoke inhalation and later transported to the Burn Center in Phoenix in critical condition. The remaining employees who were on shift when the fire broke out were examined by doctors and determined to be in good health.

Pinal County Environmental Quality was contacted to ensure the air was safe. They deemed that an evacuation of the area was not required.

Oracle Fire Chief Larry Southard at the time said that his department was glad to help in this emergency. “We don’t get structure fires often,” he said, adding that the departments all have to work together when they do.

John Hernandez (147 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.


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