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Mock emergency drills keep TDCJ personnel prepared

The TDCJ correctional officer driving the passenger van carrying nine offenders didn’t see the dump truck coming until it was too late. The last thing she heard before losing consciousness was the screeching of brakes and a loud crash.
CO holding inmate's arm as she is being taken away from an overturned van. Another inmate is laying on the ground.
Murray Unit Sgt. Carl McCormick III helps an offender away from a prison van that flipped over when struck by a second TDCJ vehcile during an emergency drill in Gatesville in May. Hilltop Unit Administrative Assistant Christal Downey played the role of the offender pictured.

Photos by Jene Robbins

Within minutes, rescuers found the driver still secured by her seat belt but pinned under the steering wheel of the van that had flipped on its side after colliding with a second TDCJ vehicle near the back gate of the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. When finally cut free from the wreckage, it was determined that the unresponsive driver had suffered a leg fracture and a possible closed head injury. A Life Flight helicopter was called in to ferry her to the emergency room of a nearby hospital. Injuries to the second correctional officer in the van were superficial, but five of the offenders fastened into their seats needed to be transported by ambulance to the local hospital. The driver of the dump truck that had been hauling a backhoe on a trailer escaped with just a few cuts and bruises.

The accident seemed so real. But it actually never happened. Instead, the scene was staged in May by TDCJ employees assigned to the cluster of prison units in Gatesville. In addition to quarterly fire drills, all TDCJ units are required by policy to conduct an emergency preparedness drill each year.

“The drills are conducted so we don’t become complacent,” said David Scholwinski, operations manager for the Risk Management Department in Huntsville. “There are a lot of things that can happen. This is just a training tool to keep our response skills honed. We can’t afford not to be prepared.”

Working together, the six TDCJ units in Gatesville typically conduct preparedness drills that are unsurpassed in their complexity and realism, Scholwinski said. This year’s drill, for instance, featured realistic-looking injuries and even smoke effects. And each is scripted to call for the response of emergency personnel from the neighboring community.

“We feel like it’s important to build a rapport with the emergency personnel we would call upon during an actual emergency,” said Ricky Bates, risk manager at the Mountain View Unit and Woodman State Jail in Gatesville. “It’s about working together like a family.”

crash victim on stretcher being helped by paramedics
The Gatesville Unit, in conjunction with local emergency personnel staged a disaster drill to train for such an event. TDCJ employees dressed as inmates for the drill.
Emergency personnel from the city of Gatesville, Coryell County, and Coryell Memorial Hospital responded to the drill. Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to peel back the top of the 15-passenger van and free the pinned driver. Hospital employees, meanwhile, worked with unit medical staff in setting up a triage to treat what injuries they could at the scene. Correctional staff secured the intersection and accompanied the injured offenders to the hospital.

All the drill participants were unit employees dressed for the part. A unit risk manager donated the van that was stripped of its engine, transmission, gas tank and all of its fluids prior to the exercise. It was later sold for scrap metal and the proceeds donated to the American Cancer Society.

Bates said four to six weeks of planning goes into the preparedness drills that are hosted by a different unit each year. Scholwinski observed his first preparedness drill in Gatesville a few years ago and came away so impressed that he decided to have this year’s drill videotaped for use as a training tool.

“I thought it was excellent,” Scholwinski said about the drill. “They pull out all the stops and have really raised the bar in emergency preparedness.”

Following each year’s drill, the emergency responders come back together to evaluate their performances and talk about what went right and what didn’t.

“There were a couple of glitches, but, overall, I was real pleased with the drill,” Bates said. “I’ve been here a lot of years, and it’s always been a real team effort. We couldn’t get it done without the help of everybody at the units and in the community.”

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