During planning for the April 17th Disaster Shelter training exercise, we decided to throw in some much needed “realism”. We did this for three reasons. First was to allow the team to experience the “total scenario package”. A disaster shelter isn’t just communications. It also involves dealing with shelter clients, health & welfare messages, and even minor medical emergencies. We also wanted to introduce some “confusion and disorder” into the drill. Finally, we wanted to ramp up the amount of communicators coming into and going out of the shelter.
Several team members were designated as a “registration team”. Their job was to greet the shelter clients as they came in, register them, and give them a tour of the eating and sleeping areas, the bathrooms and the informal gathering spaces. Our church sponsor, Pastor Bill, arranged for several church members to act the part of shelter clients and they really did a great job.
Next was the health & welfare message team. These hams met with the shelter clients who wanted to send out H&W messages and helped to formulate the message onto the ARRL Radiogram form. Once it was ready, they moved it on to the communications team.
The communications team – containing a mix of newer hams and very experienced hams – were by far the busiest. They had to set up a shelter communications system from our comms trailer equipment and make sure the external antennas worked. This involved deciding not only where to place the trailer, but deciding on coax run and where inside the shelter might be the best location for the radios. We wanted it near enough to the entrance to help monitor client intake but set back far enough to keep communications private.
Our Emergency Operations Center radio operator – placed for this exercise in our communications van out back in the parking lot – did a great job of keeping the comms team busy with simulated EOC to shelter traffic intermixed with health & welfare message traffic.
In the middle of everything we threw in a couple of “unexpected scenarios” forcing the team to deal with dressing a minor cut on a shelter client’s hand from the first aid kits in their go-bags to helping a shelter client with breathing problems.
As always, we ended up with more questions than answers at the evening debriefing. Many questions concerned shelter client information. How much needs to be forwarded to the EOC, client confidentiality, and proper information logging. We found that among the team groups, one would be busy while others sat idle for a few minutes. We simply need to remind everyone a disaster shelter is a group effort. When not busy with your primary assignment, help others accomplish theirs. We clarified how and when to request trained medical staff for disaster client issues. We might be able to apply a bandage but more serious issues require an aid car or ambulance.
This exercise lasted approximately 90 minutes. A 30 minute debrief followed. The comms team passed five formal messages and lots of tactical messages over multiple frequencies. With more practice, we will all get faster with H&W messages but we must be sure to maintain accuracy and copy ability.
A special thanks go out to our volunteer shelter clients from the Mt. View Baptist Church. These folks were great. They played multiple parts – some bewildered and confused, some very upset and unhappy. Everyone played their part perfectly. I was very proud watching our registration team in particular, working quietly to calm the clients, recognizing those people would rather be somewhere else than a disaster shelter.
There were a couple of scenarios we simply didn’t get to exercise, but there will always be another time. Good job everyone!