Scores of volunteers and county agencies deploy for disaster response drill
on August 10, 2011
Contra Costa College’s San Pablo campus was turned into a relief shelter for families displaced by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake that hit the Bay Area at 1:30 Tuesday morning. Didn’t feel the shock? That’s because the earthquake was made up as an exercise that gave volunteers a chance to practice giving aid to displaced families. And the pace? Perhaps a tad more casual than if it were a real disaster response—but only by a little.
The responders during the morning’s exercise were several dozen Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers and employees from the county’s health, animal, emergency and human services agencies. They deployed in the college’s student union to practice the roles they will be tasked with if and when disaster strikes, delivering mass care and providing shelter for Contra Costa County’s families.
The newly-minted shelter buzzed with a low hum as volunteers in brightly colored vests went about their duties. Volunteers in Red Cross vests handed out snacks and water, checked people in and staffed a nursing area. Blue vests ran the animal shelter, white vests directed people, yellow vests were the commanders and green vests acted as observers. The scene was utterly orderly, yellow caution tape marked off the area, posted signs gave notice of the services performed in each area of the building and the volunteer victims queued quietly and waited patiently on cots after being checked in.
The volunteers acting as displaced quake survivors were given roles to play as they were cycled through the sheltering process. “If you’ve ever wanted to act, this is your chance,” Susan Roseberry, a senior emergency planner with the sheriff’s department, told the volunteers during a briefing. Some were asked to play non-English speakers who required translators. Others had mock physical injuries, needed medicines lost when they evacuated their homes, or had mental health problems.
“Basically, we’re doing a lot of problem solving in a disaster,” said Donna Hefman, who has deployed to a handful of emergencies in her eight years as a Red Cross volunteer, and was wrapping up in the nurses area at the end of the exercise. “We have to figure out how to get needs met with what we’ve got on hand.”
During the exercise, the volunteer actors were assigned a cot in the main shelter area in a big room in the middle of the college’s student union. Real Red Cross nurses took care of people needing fake first aid or referrals to get replacement medicines. County human services employees signed people up for emergency food stamps. Salvation Army volunteers fixed a lunch of sandwiches, soup and fruit.
The county’s disaster preparedness plan takes a broad view of the family, and so a handful of the volunteer actors were family pets. “For many people, their animals are a part of their families, just like their kids. For some people, their pets are their kids,” said Noell Crosse, an education coordinator for the county’s animal services who was overseeing the animal shelter.
After Hurricane Katrina, when people with pets were turned away from shelters because shelters were not equipped to take in animals, then-President George Bush signed a mandate requiring state and local disaster preparedness plans to include provisions for handling animals, Crosse said. Tuesday’s exercise was the first time the agency was allowed to set up an indoor animal shelter.
Throughout the morning about a dozen volunteers and animal services workers took turns at the various animal shelter roles. Some checked on pets and took down basic information from their owners about physical characteristics, vaccination records, medical needs and health and behavioral history. Others photographed the pets with their owners so a visual record of who owns which animal would be available when the dogs left the shelter. Once the dogs were checked in and set up in their temporary homes, volunteers went about watering and checking up on them.
In the event of an actual emergency, Crosse said there would be an animal services veterinary technician on hand to do snout-to-tail exams to evaluate the health of the animals as they were checked in so workers could see if an animal’s condition was deteriorating. In the event of a disaster, animals are often stressed and afraid, and those manning animal shelters have to be trained to read their signals to keep themselves and the animals safe and healthy. “Some dogs are fear aggressive and need to be handled carefully,” Crosse said. “[Emergency animal shelter workers] need to know if a dog is smiling at you it’s not smiling because it’s happy but because he’s getting ready to bite your face off.”
Setting animal shelters next to human shelters is ideal, Crosse said, because that way pet owners will be able to check their animals out for a walk or to spend time with them. “That stress relief is really going to be huge for the people and for the animals,” Crosse said. She also said securities an issue of concern because some animal breeds are valuable, so precautions are taken to make sure pets only leave with their owners.
Dogs aren’t the only animals emergency responders will have to deal with in the event of a disaster. Other household pets like cats and rabbits are commonly brought to disaster shelters. At the exercise, reptiles, livestock and some other less than common pets were simulated by stuffed animals, and responders were told what they are when they were checked in.
“I have a teddy bear that’s a spider monkey today. What should I do with that?” one volunteer asked Crosse with an amused smile.
“It’s exotic, so keep it separate from the population because I don’t know what kind of diseases he might carry,” she shot back after only the slightest pause. The spider monkey/teddy bear was put in a cage in the shade away from the other stuffed animals.
At the end of the day, volunteers were gathered for a debriefing to figure out any kinks that needed to be ironed out in the event of a real emergency. “I think they need more translators,” volunteer actor Polly Taikan who had played a person who needed translation said as she ate her lunch before the debriefing. Taikan, a Richmond resident, speaks Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, but struggles a little with English, she said. “But it was fun, I liked it,” she said.
The day ran smoothly, said Teddy Terstegge, who oversees emergency services for the Contra Costa Community College District and organized the day’s exercise. Although it was only a simulated disaster response, the agencies and volunteers were kept in the dark about the exact nature of the emergency and the kinds of issues volunteer actors were assigned so shelter workers had to solve problems as they were presented.
Terstegge said it could take up to a day to get a shelter set up like the one in the exercise. He said colleges are ideal places to set up a shelter, because they have “places to cook food, toilet facilities, and showers. They’re facilities that have all these things already in place and the space to put people up.” The Community College District held a similar exercise at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill last year and plans to hold another at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg next year.
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