Michelle Bufkin, AU Agriculture Communications Student/EDEN Community of Practice Social Media Assistant, recently interviewed EDEN Delegate Linda Williams (Montana) about her experience conducting training exercises.
How did you first get involved with EDEN and what is your current role?
The first EDEN meeting I attended was in 2000 in Portland, Oregon. I was asked to give a presentation on the Montana wildfires. I was not familiar with EDEN at the time, but I met the individuals involved with EDEN; I was so impressed that I was hooked from that point on. Since 2000 I have only missed one meeting. I served as chairman of the marketing committee for EDEN, and now I am chairman of the exercise group. What I love about EDEN is its diversity. There is a wide range of expertise along with a sense of commitment and passion. Delegates all meld together and work as a team toward the common goal of educating about preparedness.
Can you explain what goes into successfully planning and executing an exercise?
Since I have a unique role it gives me a little different perspective about working with exercises than a lot of emergency managers. I am a Montana State University Extension agent as well as an emergency management coordinator for Chouteau County; Extension has written that position into my extension job description. Being an extension agent, I am an educator at heart, so when I do exercises I plan them based on making them fun and educational for individuals participating. Oftentimes individuals feel threatened by exercises, because they feel that their performance is being judged; but I look at it as judging how well the protocols and plans work, and if they can be implemented.
Sometimes I will conduct an exercise and encourage the participants to perform the way they would naturally, based upon normal day-to-day response patterns. I like to observe those responses and if they are effective, then write protocols based upon responders’ natural behavior. In an emergency, people have a tendency to react based upon practiced behavior patterns whenever possible. It is very difficult during a disaster to react in a completely unnatural manner. If the exercise takes a different route than we expected and their normal response patterns are not successful, I do not look at it as a failure of the individual’s performance but rather a failure of the system. If a person’s natural response is not appropriate in the disaster simulation, we look at what are the differences from an everyday response and what might work better. This just means we need to provide more training, so that effective disaster responses become habitual and natural.
When we do the evaluation of the exercise I am very careful to not evaluate individual’s performance; we focus on what did and did not work. We let them evaluate themselves, a lot of times they are tougher on themselves than anyone else ever would be. Based on that evaluation they are able to determine what type of training they might need to respond appropriately to this kind of emergency.
That’s one of the ways I look at exercises that focus on training for emergency responders. I also try to utilize the public a lot in exercises, which has the benefit of serving as a public education tool for emergency preparedness.
What have been some unique exercises you have planned?
We’ve had some unique public education type exercises. In one we combined using our public volunteers to establish a point of dispensing and then used the public as victims of an evacuation, during a three-day exercise. The “victims” volunteered ahead of time for a mock survivor course. They had to learn and use survival skills while competing in competitions over the three days. One competition was a scavenger hunt. They had to identify businesses from clues and go pick up a part of a 72-hour survival kit. By the end of the scavenger hunt they had their own personal survival kit. Through this we taught what should be in a kit, while involving the businesses. We had YouTube videos so family members that did not live here could watch them compete and watch the awards ceremony at the end of the challenge. That exercise really developed a lot of team spirit as they were doing the different types of challenges. It really raised a lot of public awareness about emergency preparedness and survival.
We did a 6-week youth exercise during school with a group of seniors at the high school. They completed an online ICS, Incident Command System, 100 course. Different agency representatives came into the school and explained their role in a disaster, so that they could be better prepared for the exercise. During the exercise the students were helping write the Agriculture Annex for the EOP [Emergency Operations Plan]. The students developed fact sheets about animal diseases, as well as zoonotic diseases. As part of their architecture class, they drew diagrams of our fairgrounds and veterinary clinics–places we would shelter animals in a similar disaster. They also developed an animal decontamination protocol; we had the students dress up in decon suits and allowed them to “decontaminate” two dogs and some stuffed animals. We ended the whole program by having a functional exercise based on a pandemic scenario. They played the roles of the emergency response agencies, elected officials, law enforcement, and public health. We had those agencies there, but they were not allowed to tell the students how to respond. The students solved the scenario, by themselves, which was a valuable learning experience for the youth.
We try to come up with unique activities that involve the public and the emergency responders. Chouteau County was the recipient of a model community award in 2007 from the Center of Disease Control. I am really pleased because it was a team effort. This award was based on our exercises, a collaboration between public health and emergency care, and trying to involve all of the different agencies in our exercises.
You’ve talked about what you do to prepare for an exercise, is there any advice you would give our readers to help them prepare for participating in an exercise?
Don’t be afraid! Remember it’s an exercise of the system, not of the individual. Go in prepared to do your best, and realize that it is a team effort.
We as educators should get information from the public to see what they want to learn about, and what they might want extra training for. So as a participant, keep things like that in mind during an exercise and be prepared to give feedback.
Why do you think it is important to engage in exercises? What benefits have you seen?
I have seen countless benefits. It helps the public learn their role in an emergency, it also helps them realize that they are responsible for their own initial safety and security. One of EDEN’s mottos that applies to this situation is “All disasters are local.”
No matter how well organized emergency response agencies are they cannot get to them as quickly as they would like. Chouteau County is a frontier landscape. We have less than two people per square mile. There are vast spaces and distances; disasters do not always happen right in front of the emergency responders. The public has to be self sufficient for the first 72 hours, and respond appropriately to the disaster. That’s one value of an exercise: emergency responders learn how to prepare appropriately to help the public, while the public learns how to help themselves. Most of our emergency responders are volunteers, so these exercises really help them solidify how they would respond in a similar situation. Law enforcement are the only paid personnel, the ambulance and fire departments are all volunteers, so they will be impacted as well. The exercises help promote a cohesive team approach to a disaster.
Can you give us an overview of what went into planning and executing the Lewis & Clark exercise?
That was a two-year preparation process. We met numerous times with officials from the two counties involved: Chouteau and Cascade. Exactly one year before the event we held an exercise, we had 130 emergency response personnel from six different counties participate, along with 20 different county and state agencies, along with 50 of the general public serve as victims and patients. We simulated the opening event in Loma, we simulated that terrorists had bombed a school bus of VIPs that had come to the opening ceremony. So that way we involved the fire department with hazardous materials and bombs. That showed us where our gaps were. We discovered that with the number of patients we had, some patients would have to travel as far as 90 miles away just to get hospital care. That was an eye-opener to us.
We prepared the best we could. We set up different operational committees to take care of events that were planned or anything that could occur. In the month leading up to the signature event, there was a huge problem with the economy, and people stopped traveling. We realized we were not going to have as many people, but we still did a briefing the night before the opening ceremony. At that briefing, since there was a drought and a chance of fire we did a simulation about a fire in the Highwood Mountains. We talked through it with all of the Incident Command Staff, and after that meeting it began raining; it rained 15 inches in 12 hours, so there was flooding in the Highwood Mountains. Our scenario had been wildfire, and the reality was flooding, but we responded the same way. The exercise paid off because everyone knew their job because we still had the summer celebration and the opening ceremony along with flooding.
Over the two weeks we were most impacted by the signature events we had to rescue people trapped in the Highwood Mountains; individuals on the river we had to warn about all the debris coming down the river; a high speed chase through the reenactment in Loma; an individual that murdered someone and threw them down a well in the country that we had to retrieve; and girl scouts that we had to evacuate from our fairgrounds in the middle of the night because of storms. We had all of these things going on behind the scenes of the Lewis & Clark expedition, but still the biggest compliment was that everything went smoothly. They didn’t see what was going on behind the scenes because we had prepared so well.
Can you give us a brief description of what you participated in while in South Africa?
That was a real learning experience for me. I love to go to other areas and see how they respond to things and then use those as the basis for our exercises. It’s an exchange program, individuals from South Africa come over during the summer to observe our fire season responses. We also go over there to help train them in ICS courses. When I was over there I instructed: a Basic ICS course, a Liaison course, a Risk Assessment for Helicopter managers course, and an Intermediate ICS 300 course. The people we teach then go out and teach their personnel.
Even though the culture is extremely different over there, I found that all disasters are still local. They also have problems with finding resources, just like we do. I was extremely impressed with the Working On Fire Program, which focuses on alleviating poverty, conserving the environment, and improving lives. Their program focuses on individuals from different areas of South Africa who have no opportunity to go to school, no food, and essentially no future. They are placed in a military type academy that provides them education about firefighting, leadership skills, financial skills, entrepreneurship, carpentry, construction, and farming. It gives them a basis to become productive citizens.
What was your favorite/most rewarding part of participating in the South African program?
The most rewarding part was meeting the people who made me feel like family. I was very nervous before I went over there, especially because I was not sure what to expect. The people were amazing, very open and welcoming. The students were very receptive to learning, they were so excited to have the opportunity to learn.
I also enjoyed touring around the country, seeing animals I have never seen in the wild, and learning about their culture. Along with eating all of their traditional native food!