COLUMBIA, S.C. (WLTX)—The University of South Carolina’s College of Nursing led a mass casualty exercise Tuesday at Williams-Brice stadium to research a computer app that helps decide which patients need help first. The exercise was to study how quickly patients can be processed from the time they get to an ER waiting room.

"We still have a lot to learn about how to triage patients who experience mass casualty and what we're trying to do is develop technology that will help save lives during mass casualty," says Jeannette Andrews, dean of the USC College of Nursing.

In the scenario, about 300 nursing students from USC and Francis Marion University played the part of actual victims of the Graniteville train crash in January 2005. Identifying information on the victims was removed, but their symptoms were on cards that students held. The students gave that information to nurses trained to use tablet computers that have the new computer app. The Graniteville crash released a cloud of chlorine gas that killed ten people and hurt hundreds.

Lead principal researcher Joan Culley says, "When you look at something like Graniteville, you have two, three hundred patients surging on a small hospital all of a sudden. Doesn't know what happened. It took them over two hours to find out that it was a chemical and that it was chlorine."

This new app, developed at USC, can more quickly spot that a hospital is looking at a chemical event, which could save lives. Culley says, "There are a lot of patients that may not experience signs and symptoms for up to 8 hours. So if they come into the emergency room because they heard something or they smelled something and they wanted to get checked out, if you send them home, many of them will come back or become very ill because you missed those signs and symptoms that occur up to 8 hours later."

The 4-year research is being funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Library of Medicine.

The exercise also included hazmat teams from the Columbia and Charleston Fire Departments to test decontamination efforts and how well they work. Culley says, “We don't really know if hosing off somebody is going to remove 80 percent or not. We don't know how exposed our firefighters are. So we are doing a study outside today that's also looking at what is the exposure of our firefighters? How contaminated do they become? And what are the best methods for decontaminating our patients?"