FEMA tests Ky. responders' disaster preparedness
By Dariush Shafa
Copyright 2007 Messenger-Inquirer
OWENSBORO, Ky. — For several local professionals, it was back to the classroom recently for two days, followed by another two days of hands-on experience.
But these weren't any ordinary lessons.
A chemical disaster.
A "minor" radiological event.
A smallpox outbreak.
Working to prevent a recurrence of the harsh lessons of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency sponsored the training. Working out of the only federally chartered weapons-of-mass-destruction training facility at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala., those attending were taught how to react during the worst of situations.
The training took place at the Noble Training Facility, which hosts a decommissioned military hospital, a full-service facility that only lacks people.
"It looks just like a hospital, but it's a ghost town," said Angela Woosley, chairwoman of Kentucky's Region Three Emergency Preparedness Partnership.
Woosley didn't take part in the most recent training, but she was one of the local officials who participated two years ago.
First responders, paramedics, EMS personnel, health department officials and hospital public relations personnel took part in the training and exercises.
Bringing in people of varied backgrounds and jobs is part of preparing for the reality of a disaster, said Steve Wall, safety and security manager at Owensboro Medical Health System.
"The intent was to test our interaction and communication between the various groups of management at the agencies we represent," he said. "The single most important factor was communication."
Woosley said the heavy emphasis on sharing information matches up perfectly with how it needs to be in a disaster situation.
"Communication is the No. 1 problem in any event. It always has been and probably always will be," Woosley said, adding that once information is shared, it helps the emergency officials see that it's all about teamwork. "It really opens your eyes to see that we're all in this together."
Making use of the hospital, the trainees went through various disaster scenarios.
"We managed disasters they threw at us, and we ran within the hospital just like it was a regular hospital," Wall said.
For Woosley, it stopped being training and started being the real thing.
"You totally forget that it's simulated because you get so into it," Woosley said, adding that sometimes the work didn't stop at the door. "You're working the whole time you're there, and sometimes they even give you homework."
There was no soft touch, not even for public relations personnel.
"The teach you how to set up a joint communication center so that you're not only communicating internally, but also externally, to communicate with other agencies, the community and the media in a timely fashion," said Gordon Wilkerson, head of public relations at OMHS.
Now that they're back, Wall said he's much more comfortable with his ability to handle an emergency.
"I will know where to start. I'll know how to set it up, how to run the management piece," he said. "You gain a confidence level and you network with providers in outlying areas that we can work with. You know that you're not alone, you know where the resources are."
Woosley said it helps to understand how each person fits into the greater scheme of things.
"You realize every person has something to do," she said. "A lot of it is to make sure that you utilize the resources in your community."
Woosley said the training could easily be applied to all disaster situations.
"It's really for everything: Floods, ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, up to a pandemic, which is the worst thing that happened," she said.
Robina Spencer, a registered nurse at the Green River District Health Department and coordinator of the Green River Medical Reserve Corps, said preparation is especially important in Owensboro, whether it's for a man-made or a natural disaster.
"If you're prepared for one, you can be prepared for the other," Spencer said. "We're in an area where tornadoes hit, floods hit and it just helps prepare us to get ready for those events."
Though Region Three is the only emergency preparedness partnership to take this course, Spencer said all emergency response teams, hospitals and related groups should send their personnel for the training.