The tour bus crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Westmoreland County that killed five people and injured about 60 early Sunday morning was a nightmare for emergency crews and dispatchers.
But it was nothing that they were not prepared for well in advance.
Locally, such a highway crash ranks “right alongside the Hyndman derailment” as a worst-case scenario, said Dave Cubbison, Bedford County’s emergency management director.
“The turnpike is one of many transporation routes” that cross Bedford County, Cubbison said, pointing to Interstates 99 and 70, and routes 220, 30 and 56.
The potential for crashes with a large number of injuries extends beyond the major routes and tour buses, Cubbison pointed out.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of school buses on township roads every day,” he said.
In Sunday’s crash, a bus that was traveling from Rockaway, New Jersey, to Cincinnati, Ohio, went out of control on a curve and rolled onto its side about 3:40 a.m. The bus was struck by two tractor-trailers, and another tractor-trailer and a passenger car also became involved.
Cubbison pointed out that the potential was there for such an incident a few years ago in Bedford County.
In February 2014, a tour bus returning from Rocky Gap Casino and Resort near Cumberland, Maryland, went out of control on an icy Route 220 in Cumberland Valley Township, about six miles north of the state line, on what Cubbison recalled as “a very wintery, slippery, icy day.”
In that incident, he said, 25 ambulances were called to the scene. As it turned out, most of the injuries were minor.
“There is always a perfect number (of responders),” he said, explaining that those in command inevitably err on the side of calling too many units to such incidents. “You can always turn units around, with thanks,” he said.
In any incident, Cubbison explained, “the first units on the scene determine whether its a simple traffic accident, or escalates to another category.”
Other categories may include a mass-casualty incident or a mass-fatality incident. The two are not the same, he said, and can cause confusion for those who don’t know the terminology. He pointed to a school-bus crash with several injuries, none of them that serious, that the paramedic at the scene reported — correctly — as a mass-casualty incident. But people listening to their scanners who didn’t know the terminology “went pretty wild when they heard that term.”
When needed, dispatchers have plenty of tools to help find the needed resources. The Westmoreland crash was “a large-scale event that required a large-scale response,” Cubbison said.
Locally, the plan would be to drain the center part of the county and work out from there, Cubbison said. Bedford County’s 911 center is equipped with computer aided dispatch (CAD), and in a larger incident Southern Alleghenies EMS Council can employ an “EMS Surge” to pull in more stations.
Multiple agencies often assist, Cubbison said, pointing to PennDOT, municipalities law enforcement and even public works departments.
“Even on small calls it’s never a single point of activity,” he said.
One unusual problem for responders to Sunday’s crash was that a large number of bus passengers spoke Japanese or Spanish as a first language, and little or no English.
It’s a problem local responders are prepared for, Cubbison said.
Local crews have acces to a service called Language Line. “They have a pretty quick diagnostic system within their software” that includes up to 120 languages, he said, that can assist in communicating with the patients. Cubbison pointed out that the service is rarely needed, but is available on a per-minute basis, so the cost is minimal.
He also noted that cellphone applications are becoming available that can act almost as a universal translator. “Some first responders may be using that already,” he said.
The downside, Cubbison pointed out, is that those apps are only available where cell service is available.