Sacramento Exercise Highlights Use of Volunteer Responders in Disasters

"If Folsom Dam truly did break or Shasta Dam breaks or we have our massive hundred-year floods like they keep predicting, we could be that next region."

by / September 17, 2008

Photo: Volunteers from throughout California drill water rescue in simulated Folsom Dam collapse. (Credit: Gail Gallegos)

According to the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, the Sacramento area faces an unacceptably high risk of flooding. In the event of a large-scale flood, first responders may become overwhelmed with response and recovery missions and may even be prevented from accessing certain areas due to flooded roads and other obstacles. This makes trained volunteers a critical part of the emergency response system.

To that end, an exercise conducted on September 13th, 2008 gave volunteer community emergency response teams a chance to work together in responding to a large-scale simulated disaster. "We had CERT members-and then we had highly trained CERT members. Then we had CERT members that were brand-new-just trained yesterday," Geoff Winford, Sacramento regional Community Emergency Response Team coordinator and logistics coordinator for Saturday's exercise.

The scenario included the bursting of the Folsom Dam with a number of "victims" trapped on land and near water for several hours.

"We knew that this was one category we had not covered in water rescue and in large field situations like that. That's why we designed this whole event around this category," Winford said. "We've done collapsed buildings and large things like that before, but we've never done one in the field like this."

Doing this drill made sense "with Sacramento second on the list as the next New Orleans," Winford explained. "We've already been dedicated to that because of our levee system and our waterways. If Folsom Dam truly did break or Shasta Dam breaks or we have our massive hundred-year floods like they keep predicting, we could be that next region. And water rescue is going to be the ultimate first responder inundation. They're going to be overwhelmed because there are more people than there are first responders. So the skill sets we trained with were basic for volunteers but enough to be able for somebody to do the job if they needed to in a disaster situation," he explained.

Further adding to the realism of the drill, half the first responders who were supposed to have been at the drill were in Houston and Galveston, Texas, rescuing people trapped by the waters of hurricanes Gustav and Ike. CERT volunteers used skills they drilled the previous day including how to make sandbags, how to perform water craft rescue and how to perform rope rescue, to rescue more than 100 victims trapped in and around the American River Parkway.

"This is the first time we've run an exercise where the first responders were actually the incident command operating just volunteer organizations. Normally they're operating their own," he said.

The exercise was very successful. A few lessons learned and discussed at the end of the event were the need for team leaders to make a command decision more quickly and be less "democratic" out in the field and teams should get ready to be sent back out on another assignment more quickly after completing a task. Lastly, illustrating the use of a human element to parallel the technology, a volunteer posted in the incident command center performed the valuable service of acting as a runner and facilitating communications inside the command post.