TOGUS — Emergency responders from across the area converged Tuesday for one of the largest mass casualty exercises in the past decade at the medical center campus.

The exercise at VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus imagined dozens of fatalities and injuries from two explosions, including one from a bomb laced with anthrax. It was designed to hone coordination skills between federal, municipal and private agencies, said Maine VA Medical Center spokesman James Doherty.

“You hope something never happens, but you want to exercise to make sure you’ve gone through it,” he said. “You realize your strengths and the areas that can be improved.”

Such exercises help prepare the hospital and outside agencies for a variety of emergencies, officials said, such as the shooting on the hospital grounds in July 2010. James Popkowski, a former Marine and disgruntled patient from the Medway area, fired several shots at the hospital, some of which reportedly came within a few feet of other patients and staff, who were outdoors at the time.

Popkowski was subsequently shot and killed by VA police and Maine game wardens. The shooting has had long-term effects on medical center staff, said Medical Center Director Ryan Lilly.

“We don’t have to spend a lot of time convincing people to take a drill seriously,” Lilly said.

He said the shooting also highlights the importance of practicing responses to different emergency scenarios, he said.

The two-plus hour exercise on Tuesday was meant to create a realistic response to a disaster, including emergency workers wearing protective gear, patients being treated in a decontamination station and then being bandaged and loaded into an ambulance to be taken to MaineGeneral Medical Center’s hospitals in Augusta and Waterville. High school students from the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta were the patients for the exercise.

Lilly said the Joint Commission, which accredits the VA medical center and about 19,000 other hospitals across the country, requires each of its hospitals to conduct two training exercises a year. At least one of those yearly exercises has to involve a mass casualty scenario, Lilly said.

The VA hospital’s last scenario involved a massive power failure, he said.

Lilly said he was pleased with the cooperation and coordination among agencies.

Most drills reveal shortcomings in communications and the experience on Tuesday was no exception, Lilly said. There is usually room to streamline the flow of information between the command center and those working at the scene.

“That was the lesson here, too,” Lilly said.

Improving communications is part of the reason medical center administrators and emergency responders continue to practice responding to disasters. Vulnerability assessments grade potential disasters based on likelihood and potential impact. A massive snowstorm, for example, would score high in probability but lower in impact.

It’s less likely the medical center will ever deal with two explosions, Lilly said, “but the potential impact is tremendous.”

“It’s an important drill for us to do,” he added. “In a real event we’re going to have to coordinate with lots of agencies.”

The exercise included several dozen responders from the VA Office of Emergency Management, Augusta Fire and Rescue, Kennebec County Emergency Management, Maine Emergency Management, Delta Ambulance and the Maine Army National Guard’s Civilian Response Team.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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