By Trent Moore, David Palmer and Ashley Graves
The Cullman Times
It took two tense hours for the final call to come over the radio at the makeshift command center in front of Cullman Regional Medical Center late Sunday night, but the sense of relief was almost palpable among local police and emergency officials once it finally arrived.
With the threat of a potential bomb on the campus of Cullman Regional Medical Center, dozens of local law enforcement and hospital officials evacuated 55 patients and several employees from the Cullman hospital in a little over an hour, making way for a top-to-bottom search by police.
The evacuation began at approximately 8:30 p.m., spurred by an anonymous 911 bomb threat call several minutes earlier in Marshall County. By 10:30 p.m. authorities had cleared the hospital, finding no sign of any explosive device.
From the moment police arrived, patients were being bused to the former Woodland Medical Center, the Cullman Civic Center and a local physician’s office, depending on their level of care. Responders worked until the wee hours of the morning to make sure all 55 patients were safely returned.
Authorities are still searching for the man responsible for the threat, which was also issued for Marshall Medical Centers in Guntersville and Boaz. Police say they have at least one person of interest in the case, but Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper noted it would be “premature to speculate why this happened.” The name of the suspect has not officially been released.
As soon as the hospital was empty, police officers and deputies teamed up with hospital personnel for a room-by-room search of the facility, to ensure there was no bomb. Police left a white “X” mark on every room they cleared with medical tape, similar to the approach used by the National Guard when searching disaster sites.
“We took local law enforcement and teamed them up with hospital employees who were familiar with specific locations,” Cullman Police assistant chief Craig Green said at the scene, moments after the search had ended. “This worked really well, because they were already very familiar with their work spaces. The goal was to get it cleared as quickly as possible, so we could get the patients back where they needed to be.”
The evacuation and search was a joint law enforcement operation, including the Cullman Police Department, Cullman Fire Rescue, the Cullman County Emergency Management Agency, the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office and several other groups.
Cullman Fire Rescue Chief Edward Reinhardt said the evacuation went smoothly for an impromptu operation this size, which also enlisted Cullman Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) resources for mass transit to and from evacuation sites.
“All the agencies worked really well together and it went as good as could be expected,” he said. “You had everyone from hospital staff to the K-9 unit working together.”
CRMC chief executive officer Jim Weidner said the evacuation was carried out under an existing emergency plan, which employees are tested on periodically. Emergency room employees stationed outside the hospital also told The Times the evacuation went according to plan.
“We weren’t expecting this, but we drill for it,” Weidner said. “I was really proud of our staff and all the emergency responders. We had some 200 employees on duty tonight and a number of physicians who were on hand at Woodland and the civic center to care for the patients.”
With so many patients displaced while the search was ongoing, the Cullman County Red Cross was called upon to open an emergency shelter at the Cullman Civic Center. Director Mike Bates said he and volunteers had the site operational within 35 minutes, just as patients began to arrive.
“We appreciate [parks director] John Hunt coming and opening it up for us,” Bates said. “We had 16 to 17 volunteers from all over who got it up and operational in record time. We had 40 cots, and had snacks, drinks, and things we needed to get by with until we could get our feet on the ground.”
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.