Prepping for a Disaster

By Carolyn Heinze, February 5, 2015

In the harsh cold of Anchorage, Alaska, hundreds of people lay screaming on the ground bandaged, triaged or worse. If it sounds like a disaster, it’s meant to. Fortunately, the “victims” are actually volunteers during a five-day emergency training session acting out a scene eerily familiar to natives of Alaska. Fifty years earlier, an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale triggered a tsunami, killing 118 people and leaving thousands without food and shelter. Last year, the State of Alaska and Department of Homeland Security partnered on the exercise, dubbed Alaska Shield 2014, to ensure the region is ready if another big one strikes. Helping to coordinate the event was Laura Heavrin, CMP, then senior meetings and events planner at Visions Meeting Experts, who has since become a global account manager at Smart Meetings. Connect contributor Carolyn Heinze spoke with Heavrin about the challenges of working an event involving 500 volunteers and 3,000 officials from government agencies, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups, hospitals, medical workers, military personnel, schools and private businesses.

What was your scope of involvement with Alaska Shield?

My side of it was getting the volunteers/mock patients where they needed to be once we got them on the ground. There were 31 shifts of volunteers in all. First, they would go to the Alaska Medical Station at the fairgrounds and go through their scenarios there. We also had scenarios where mock patients had already been triaged, and then they were assigned to various hospitals, and we had to move them again. We also fed them and offered as much support as possible, as many were lying in very uncomfortable beds for hours on end. I also handled all of the registration and confirmations. If a volunteer wanted to participate, I coordinated that. We had children with their parents, so we had to deal with the whole minor side of it. Then there were also participation certificates and thank-you gifts.

What were some of the challenges?

The biggest part was coordinating the volunteers. As scenarios and capacities opened up in each of these areas, the organizers would message me how many patients they needed and what scenarios they wanted them to play out. I had to work with the volunteers and the people doing the triage to make sure we matched their needs.

What about all the down time?

We prepared some fun activities. We had everything from emergency preparedness activity books to table games, to design-your-own flowerpots. There was also earthquake and emergency preparedness information, and a video that talked about the background of the event and why we were doing it. I think all 500 or so volunteers left with a much stronger understanding of what their own personal responsibility was, and how to take care of themselves in the case of a major emergency.

What makes Alaska a prime territory for such an exercise?

Alaska is a long way from federal help. The Federal Emergency Management Agency can typically get to any kind of disaster within a three-day period. They’ll never get to Alaska within the first three days. I’ve heard the quote, ‘the tyranny of distance.’ They just know they won’t be able to get to us. So we have to be trained and be able to manage ourselves until federal help can come.

How does Alaska’s climate play into the equation?

One of the issues we had was figuring out if we had enough blankets to keep patients warm as we were moving them around. How do you get emergency vehicles around when snowplows can’t come in? How do you get to remote villages that have very limited resources? How do you get to the victims and take care of them when you’re looking at temperatures of minus-54 degrees?

Have you ever done an event similar to this?

I was part of Community Emergency Response Training in Redmond, Washington. I was facility manager at one of the largest facilities there, and it was a faith-based organization. We did all of the training on how to manage patients. The site, because of its size and the way it was built, would be a command center if there was a disaster like an earthquake.

What’s Your takeaway from the Alaska program?

What’s interesting about this whole exercise is that you’re dealing with businesses, nonprofits, the faith community and government agencies. Knowing that they typically don’t work well together, this is truly a model of how it should and can be done. I have organized a lot of different events in my career, but to be able to work with all these agencies and organizations, and to learn about and be a part of the logistics of managing all of it is a unique thing.

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