As Shalimar Morales shuffled as fast as she could, clutching a friend with an injured arm at LECOM Park, her thoughts crept back to two months ago when she was working at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.
She went from going home to her 9-month-old baby, Shalimar, and husband, Dennis, after work to sleeping on the hospital floor surrounded by patients.
Morales, a student nurse assistant at the hospital, spent 72 hours in September working with patients who were evacuated from Manatee Memorial Hospital to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center as Hurricane Irma hit the area. She tried to comfort families sleeping in the hospital’s hallways because they had nowhere else to go.
“You have to forget about you,” she said. “You’re not important anymore.”
At LECOM Park on Nov. 1, Morales was a volunteer — a pretend victim in a mass-casualty terrorist attack. As Hurricane Irma taught her, it is important to be prepared for an emergency.
Members of East Manatee Fire Rescue, among other Manatee County fire departments, and Manatee County Emergency Medical Services, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and other local first responder agencies, participated in “Operation Inshore Slam,” at LECOM Park in Bradenton.
The event served as a full-scale, multiple jurisdiction exercise simulating an act of terrorism at a crowded location in which multiple people were injured.
In the scenario, two terrorists attempted to run a vehicle into LECOM Park, but were unsuccessful. They ran inside as a chemical bomb in their vehicle detonated on the perimeter of the stadium. Inside, an off-duty officer shot dead one terrorist wearing a bomb, while the other had taken refuge in a building in the stadium.
Local law enforcement agencies worked with first responders to manage crowds of people fleeing the scene, do triage of those injured in the attack, diffuse the remaining bomb and apprehend the remaining terrorist.
East Manatee Fire Rescue sent six personnel to the training exercise, including a lieutenant, three firefighters and two staff members, Training Officer Bob Mikulski and Deputy Chief Will Hall.
“These types of training scenarios don’t happen very often,” Hall said. “It gives us experience as to what our role could be. It gives us first-hand exposure on what an event of this scale would involve.”
Since all the agencies had to continue regular service, they could only send a limited number of employees to the exercise. The East Manatee firefighters who participated will share what they learned with their colleagues.
Lt. Erik Nicholson, part of an engine crew of four to participate for East Manatee, said firefighters spend most of their time training for different scenarios, but having a multiagency event offers a chance to practice different requirements. Firemen must work with other departments and agencies and work on multiple radio channels to communicate, for example.
First responders were reminded of the importance of having patience. They might be ready to render services, but law enforcement personnel might have to first clear the scene.
“It takes a little time to get your bearings,” Nicholson said. “Until you identify (what’s going on), you don’t know who to start assigning things to.”
He said all the agencies must learn to “play out of the same handbook.”
Training is critical for making a complicated scene feel more familiar.
“We’re making a point to be prepared,” Nicholson said, mentioning the Oct. 31 terrorist attack in New York City. “We pray and hope nothing like this happens at our schools or stadiums, but the way things are now, you can’t (ignore it). We take what we do very seriously, and there’s not a whole lot of room for errors.”
Exercise director Capt. Mike Bloski, of Southern Manatee Fire Rescue, said the event was the largest training event of its kind in Manatee County, and took 11 months of planning. The previous similar exercise took place in 2012.
The Nov. 1 training event utilized 239 participants, including 197 first responders and 42 volunteer actors.