Westville Correctional tests responses to disaster
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent May 21, 2013 11:46AM
A firefighter helps a victim to safery after a mock explosion as part of a disaster drill at Westville Correctional Facility on Tuesday May 21, 2013. | Jim Karczewski~Sun-Times Media
About Westville Correctional Facility
Westville Correctional Facility was converted from a state mental health hospital to a prison in 1977. It is on more than 700 acres in LaPorte County, and contains minimum, medium and maximum security units.
Nearly 3,400 offenders are housed there, and more than 2,400 are returned to the community annually.
Updated: June 23, 2013 6:22AM
WESTVILLE — The powerhouse at Westville Correctional Facility is a maze of open metal staircases, gigantic boilers and locked-off areas containing a backup generator for much of the prison and, perhaps more ominously, chlorine used to treat the prison’s water.
So it was the perfect setting Tuesday morning for the facility’s annual disaster drill, meant to gauge both the response of prison staff, many of whom did not know they were walking into a practice exercise, and the area’s first responders.
“It gives us a number of problems that have to be addressed that are unique to this particular area,” John Schrader, the prison’s public information officer, said of the powerhouse, which is located just outside the prison’s perimeter.
Prison staff and first responders arrived at the powerhouse to handle a mock fire and explosion. Firefighters with the Westville Community Volunteer Fire Department swept the building and pulled out four blast victims who sported bloody fake wounds.
Firefighters took the purported victims to the nearby engineering building where they underwent triage, conducted by the prison’s medical staff.
“A steel rod went through. There’s an entrance and an exit,” Barbara Brubaker, a member of the nursing staff, told emergency medical technicians while looking over one of the victims.
Under the disaster scenario being played out, the explosion and fire took place on the northeast side of the powerhouse, while the highly volatile and toxic chlorine was on the southeast side of the building.
Still, said John Salyer, the prison’s safety hazard manager, firefighters responding to the drill at the prison, just off Indiana 2, were informed about the chlorine.
“The possibility is always there and everyone, as they came on site and approached, was briefed on it,” Salyer said.
The drills — last year’s exercise included a hostage situation in the administration building within the prison’s perimeter — reveal points that the prison staff and the area’s rescue and law enforcement agencies need to work on. Each year’s scenario includes a debriefing afterward so the agencies can compare notes on what they can do better.
The 45-minute drill, during which the prison was on lockdown, went smoothly, Salyer said, more smoothly, in fact, than a real-life situation at the prison.
When there was a kitchen fire at the prison, Salyer and Schrader said, the fire department came to the wrong entrance.
“That’s what this drill is about,” Salyer said, “to polish things.”