(TNS) - On a typical day, students and teachers fill the halls of Shirley C. Heim Middle School in Stafford County. But on Wednesday morning, hordes of residents playing the role of survivors of an EF3 tornado strike filed off a bus and crowded into the school, which served as an emergency shelter for the day.
Volunteers greeted the survivors at the entrance, directed them to sign in and fielded numerous questions, including where to take those with life-threatening injuries and whether dogs could be taken into the shelter.
The events at the school were part of a countywide full-scale mass-care exercise involving more than 200 participants and multiple local and state agencies. County participants included the school system and departments including Human Services, Social Services, Fire and Rescue, Community Emergency Response Team, Stafford Emergency Management Communications, Sheriff’s Office, Animal Control, and Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.
Personnel from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and American Red Cross also participated.
The drill tested the county’s ability to set up and coordinate a reception center and shelter in the wake of a large-scale disaster. In this case, a hypothetical EF3 tornado with wind speeds up to 140 mph has swept through, destroying homes and businesses and leaving numerous injuries and fatalities in its wake.
The exercise began at St. Peters Lutheran Church, which served as a reception center. Volunteers manned folding tables set up at the church entrance and assessed disaster survivors as they arrived. Those with life-threatening injuries were transported to the hospital.
All others were led to a rest area, where they could find snacks, clothes and blankets. Periodically, a social worker would come in and take families one by one to a room reserved for interviews. Families were asked who they were, what happened and what resources they needed.
Afterward, families were taken to different areas of the center depending on their assessments. Some were sent back to the rest area and others went to counseling or the first aid station. There was also a computer room with internet access and a nursery where unaccompanied minors could wait with a social worker.
Families whose homes had been destroyed were transported to the shelter.
Donna Krauss, director of Human Services, said the church would serve as an actual reception center in the event of a real-world disaster. More than two dozen volunteers from the church participated in the drill.
“It takes a lot of people to make this happen,” Krauss said. “We haven’t had to use the church in a real-world scenario yet, but exercises like this ensure we are ready.”
Back at the school, local Eagle Scout candidate Patrick Cleland Griffin orchestrated the waves of survivors entering the building. He used Zello, a push-to-talk radio application, to communicate with other volunteers.
The 16-year-old Colonial Forge student played an instrumental role in the events leading up to the exercise. In order to attain his Eagle Scout rank, he recruited more than 50 Scouts and their families to act as “role players” in the exercise. The last time the county held a similar exercise, only a handful of role players participated.
Coordinating dozens of survivors and their pets was no easy task, so Patrick kept his dad’s sage advice in mind when he arrived bright and early Wednesday and encountered some challenges to his initial plans.
“My dad always says, ‘No plan ever survives first contact,’ ” Griffin explained. “We had a few missteps starting the very first moment we walked through the door this morning, but we rolled with the punches to make the project as successful as it could it be.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Virgil Gray oversaw activities at the Emergency Operations Center at the county’s Public Safety Building.
After the simulated tornado warning, the EOC was partially activated and Community Emergency Response Team volunteers arrived to support response and recovery efforts, Gray explained. A screen at the front of the room featured a live weather feed and traffic information through the Virginia 511 system.
Gray and Krauss began talking about the possibility of a countywide mass- care exercise last summer. Earlier this year, they decided to put those ideas into motion. They spent the past several months developing plans for the exercise.
“It takes a while to put an exercise of this size together,” Gray said.
The mass-care exercise is just one of many events in the county designed to improve emergency preparedness. In addition to quarterly drills and state exercises, the county also participates in events hosted by its local partners.
Gray said partnerships are the foundation of an effective emergency management plan, and the opportunity to practice the response to a real-world disaster scenario with VDEM and other partners will go a long way toward enhancing Stafford’s disaster readiness.
“Working together is essential,” Gray said. “We try to build that muscle memory for response and recovery while working in collaboration with our partners at every level—local, state and federal.”
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