Disaster drill

Where's the virile firefighter who's supposed to cut off my clothes?

By Mary Roach
Published April 7, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

There are many good reasons to volunteer as a "victim/actor" at a mock chemical weapons attack. There are the free doughnuts. There are the virile and omnipotent firefighters who cut your clothing off and carry you to safety and more doughnuts. There is the knowledge that your efforts are helping to prepare emergency personnel in the event that such a heinous thing should ever occur.

Having spent last Friday morning acting the part of a sarin nerve gas victim at the Henry J. Kaiser Arena in Oakland, Calif., I am here to tell you that should such a heinous thing ever occur, the citizens of Oakland are in a bit of trouble. It was called a disaster-preparedness exercise, but as far as most of us could tell, it was the exercise that was a disaster, minus most of the preparedness.

Disaster-preparedness drills happen all the time -- earthquake, terrorist attack, plane crash, biological weapons; you name it, they prepare for it. The American Red Cross sets up a lot of them. If you, too, would like to be a victim/actor, they'd love to hear from you. They usually have to badger their own volunteers into action. Student paramedics and high school kids also get pressed into duty a lot. I seemed to be the only one there for the fun of it, and now I know why.

My fellow victims and I were playing the part of pharmaceutical sales reps at a convention. Upon arriving at 7 a.m., we were directed to the moulage room. "Moulage" is a term for makeup used to simulate accident gore. "Moulage" also happens to be the term used by Kegeling inventor Arnold Kegel for his plaster-of-Paris vagina models, which he created to demonstrate the effects of diligent Kegeling. Apparently "moulage" is French for something moist and anatomical that you don't want to talk about over breakfast.

The basic sarin moulage package was whiteface with some blue face paint blended in, as though one of the effects of sarin was to render its victims indistinguishable from "Braveheart" extras. Those of us designated as trauma victims got to have additional trauma moulage items, such as lacerations and special-effects blood dripping from our noses and mouths. We played the starring roles, the conventioneers who were not only downed by the gas but also injured by the explosion that delivered it.

My trauma moulage amounted to a "fist-size bruise" on my neck. I was happy with my bruise until I glanced over and saw the woman next to me having the end of a plastic bone taped to her arm and slathered with stage blood, so that it looked as though it had broken loose from its moorings and poked through her flesh. I had gore envy. I wanted a protruding bone. The moulage lady patiently explained that there was a shortage of plastic bones. They were actually ballpoint pens in the shape of bones -- freebies from an osteoporosis drug manufacturer, the sort of thing a pharmaceutical conventioneer might bring home if a bomb didn't explode and blast his belongings helter-skelter across the room.

After moulage, the Domestic Preparedness team handed out our "symptomology badges." Mine included shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and muscular twitching. This is what happens to you if you're exposed to sarin gas. Conveniently enough, this is also what happens to you if you have stage fright, lack acting experience and are expected to perform the role of a dying pharmaceutical sales rep.

People were walking around, preparing for their roles as best they could. This would prove difficult for some of the victim/actors, for instance, the ones whose symptom badges included diarrhea or excessive drooling or the woman who got "speaks Spanish only and unable to talk." The scene was like something from a first-year ESL class. "I'm sweating heavily," said a smiling man to his wife. "I'm anxious and combative," she replied cheerfully.

As it turned out, our acting abilities were irrelevant. The emergency personnel didn't try to figure out what was wrong with us. The firefighter who came to my aid ignored my wrenching performance of muscular twitching, nausea and vomiting and simply gestured for me to follow him. My symptom badge also said unable to walk, and I pointed this out to him.

I was looking forward to experiencing the firefighter's carry firsthand. He scowled. "Help me out here," he said. "That's my line," I replied, but I got up, because he seemed to be in a bad mood and I couldn't blame him. He was spending his morning wearing heavy rubber clothing and a gas mask in record-high 80-degree heat in order to rescue a bunch of drooling fakers in Scottish war paint.

My firefighter deposited me with the rest of the trauma victims at the base of the convention hall steps. Ten minutes later, someone pointed to a box on the steps labeled "BOMB." We wondered what would prompt a terrorist to write BOMB on the box that contained his bomb. The same thing, we supposed, that would lead him to bomb a pharmaceutical convention.

We were herded away from the bomb box to the other side of the building, where we sat in the sun for half an hour, chatting, dying and messing up our "Braveheart" makeup with sunscreen. Eventually a firefighter came over with a hose and commenced to wet us down, as though we were fans at an outdoor rock concert -- or peonies. He explained that he was decontaminating us. If this had been an actual gas attack, they would have cut our clothes off, turned the hoses up high and really blasted us, and then they would have scrubbed us and put us into some sort of special suit and rushed us to the emergency room. "Jesus Christ," said a disgruntled victim/actor named Marta, who was visiting from Spain, where the disaster drills are "great, just great."

"If they want to practice, why don't they do it? Come and get real, people!"

A newsman came over to film the firefighter moistening the sarin. He was wearing brightly patterned cotton trousers and a tie-dye shirt. "Someone ought to cut his clothes off," said a woman beside me. Her fake blood had come loose from her skin and hung in strands off her chin, waving gently in the breeze.

Forty-five minutes later, we were herded into a fire department van and driven to a nearby hospital. No clothes cutting, no ambulance ride. Although the hospital had known about the drill for weeks, no one was waiting for us. "It's 11:30," said the emergency room woman who finally came out to the parking lot. "Someone called at 10:30 and said you'd be here in 10 minutes. We gave up on you." She looked at the lot of us, slumped and heat-stricken in the van. We were all sweating heavily, anxious and combative, regardless of what it said on our symptom badges.

"Well, shoot," she said.

Someone from hospital public relations showed up with a camera to document Summit Hospital's pivotal role in the Oakland Domestic Preparedness program. One of my fellow victims, a woman who organizes safety drills in her neighborhood and is something of a regular at these events, obediently dropped to the ground and commenced retching and spasming. Marta rolled her eyes up into her head, which wasn't on her symptom badge.

Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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