ST. LOUIS • Paramedic Joseph Kartje walked into a darkened room in the basement of the St. Louis Fire Department’s EMS headquarters on Hampton Avenue. Strobe lights flashed. Amid the toppled table and overturned boxes, Kartje found the aftermath of a hypothetical bomb blast.
The six “victims,” high-tech mannequins, were strewn on the floor: two infants, three children, one adult. One had a severed leg. Four were already dead.
These were no ordinary dummies. One of them, a boy about 8 years old, moaned. Then talked. Chris Thompson, an EMS supervisor, was manipulating the mannequin by remote. He stood nearby, punching buttons on a handheld computer that made the boy’s blood pressure drop.
“Please help me,” the mannequin said. “I’m just a kid.”
“Hang on, buddy,” says Kartje, a rookie paramedic, as he scrambles to assess what’s wrong. “Where are you hurt, little man?”
This was all part of a demonstration Wednesday of the training available at the SIM Center, 2634 Hampton Avenue, where the St. Louis Fire Department is instructing firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians on life-like mannequins.
They started training on adult mannequins last year and just started on pediatric mannequins. The mannequins can bleed, give off cardiac rhythms, take intravenous fluids and change color to indicate shock.
Every move the first responder makes — right or wrong — is monitored by an evaluator, who has the power to change the patient’s condition. If the trainee makes the wrong health care move, the mannequin’s blood pressure might plummet or its heart might stop.
Next the department hopes to transform the Hampton facility’s basement into realistic scenes for training: an alleyway, a bathroom or a tavern. On Wednesday, the storage room was still used for storage, but they envision using it for a control room, where the evaluator can monitor a scenario from behind glass.
The St. Louis Fire Department Lifesaving Foundation raised about $250,000, through November, for the SIM Center (as in simulation center). Its goal is about $500,000. Most of the expense is the mannequins and computer stations. They hope to invite other agencies to train there at cost.
For about two years, West County EMS & Fire has been using similar lifelike mannequins at its training facility, which also includes a built-in ambulance so the crews can simulate transporting the mannequins too.
The St. Louis program will be mobile, bringing simulations to firefighters and paramedics in the area, said Dr. Scott Gilmore, medical director of the St. Louis Fire Department. He said instructors would be able to put the mannequins and computers that control them in a truck and take them to firehouses or other spots for training.
Gilmore said he came up with the idea about 2½ years ago. He and Dr. Mark Levine went to the Lifesaving Foundation to ask for funding.
Levine said the pediatric component is crucial. He said children are patients on about 20 percent of the St. Louis Fire Department’s service runs. Only a small number of those cases are considered critical, so first-responders don’t get much hands-on experience with such cases.
“This allows them to practice their skills on a monthly (or) quarterly basis so they don’t get rusty,” Levine said.
Levine said the crews get in-service training annually to get pediatric certification, but it is often based on lectures and textbooks. And the mannequins they’ve used before are more like “very expensive globs of plastic” that don’t respond in realistic ways, he said. The new mannequins are much more advanced.
“With these mannequins, we can simulate a chemical or bioterrorism attack and have them frothing at the mouth,” he said. “Before it was, ‘Use your imagination.’”
Thompson, the EMS supervisor, is amazed at what they can do. “In my 25 years as a paramedic, we’ve never had a mannequin that will respond to you. I can shut one lung off. I can mimic a perfect asthmatic.”
A few months ago, Kartje was among a few crews at the St. Louis Fire Department who walked into surprise training sessions. They had been told to come to the basement and restock equipment in the storage room. They found the strobe lights and death metal music blaring. They found “bodies” on the floor and were quickly tested on how best to respond.
“You walk in and there will be blood shooting out of a fake leg,” he said. “It makes it a much more realistic and interactive training session.”