Ballarat disaster exercise provides crucial training for students

The gunshots and injuries were fake but the confronting experience of a mock shooter on ACU's Ballarat campus seemed very real when nursing and paramedicine students joined forces with local emergency services for a major mock disaster.

Now in its fifth year, the mass casualty disaster exercise is the largest in the country with more than 300 people bringing the realistic scene to life.

About 60 final year nursing and paramedicine students took part in the false emergency which provided valuable practical experience of working a mass casualty disaster before they head into the workforce.

They worked alongside Victoria Police, the Country Fire Authority, State Emergency Service, St John Ambulance, Ballarat Health Services, two Victorian Medical Assistance Teams and 3 Health Battalion from Adelaide.

ACU’s Associate Professor Helen Webb, the driving force behind the event, said it provides crucial training for ACU students to work closely with emergency services.

Associate Professor Webb said this year’s disaster response, back after a two-year COVID-enforced break, is vital to understanding the workings of a mass casualty scene, chains of command and rapidly-changing situations – all which will test student skills under immense pressure.

“This is a phenomenal experience which gives our students the opportunity to work alongside emergency services for real and experience emergency services interoperability,” she said.  

“We know with previous incidents in the world, the best outcomes in emergencies are when service personnel know each other.”

By taking part in a mass casualty, multi-agency exercise that requires a coordinated response, students learn about principles of command, control and triage during the emergency event. Students not participating as paramedics or nurses took up roles as casualties with a range of injuries.

ACU Ballarat Campus Dean, Professor Bridget Aitchison, said the annual exercise provided crucial insight into real-world mass-casualty events, allowing students to finetune their training, learn and make mistakes without putting lives at risk.

“Our students are in their fourth year of study, so they have done their practical experience on placement, but nothing really prepares them for a mass casualty or disaster of this scale,” she said.

“They don’t know how they will respond until they are in it, and by doing a simulation that’s as close as possible to the real thing they get firsthand experience of what it’s like to be in that pressure cooker.”

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