Flashback to FEMA

by

June 1, 2011

Pam Whiting, Vice President of Communications

Watching the coverage of the devastating Joplin tornado took me back to the several days I spent in Maryland going through FEMA disaster training.  At the time, I was press secretary for then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver.  Sixty of us traveled to the National Fire Academy – employees and officials from the Police and Fire Departments, Public Works, Red Cross, Salvation Army, KCP&L, MAST, Water and the Neighborhood and Community Services Departments, City Manager’s Office, even Parks & Recreation (they’ve got equipment that can help in a disaster).  Our counterparts from Jackson County were also part of the group.

Our team of trainers was from Oklahoma City and had responded to the Oklahoma City bombing.  They told us they’d gone through the same training we were about to undertake – their instructors had been Kansas Citians who’d responded to the Hyatt disaster.  They said their training in Maryland had helped them better respond to the havoc wreaked by Timothy McVeigh.

They divided us into three groups – the first was comprised of what you might call the ‘frontline’ folks – the dispatchers from Police and Fire, MAST, and other agencies who’d be the first to take the calls.  I was in the second group – the ‘middle management’ types.  The third group was made up of top management from the various agencies represented.   We spent the first day in a classroom, learning and discussing preparedness procedures – and the OKC trainers shared their experiences.

The next day, the simulated training started.  We were assigned to different rooms at the academy.  I remember having a desk, computer, and telephone – and there was a television set with a “newscaster” who’d periodically come on to update what was (supposedly) happening.

As I recall, the first event was a call to dispatchers about a fire underway at a nine-story downtown apartment building.  Then reports that electricity was out on Hospital Hill…followed by an accident at 25th and Holmes with a car that had a container of toxic chemicals in it.  The dispatchers responded to all the calls as if they were real.  As one of the communications team, I started getting a flurry of calls from people clamoring for information or complaining about how they’d been inconvenienced.

Then the TV news guy came on and announced a tornado watch had been issued for the area.  I thought to myself, “Oh, man – I can see THIS coming…”

And, of course, it did.  The tornado hit the ground in Johnson County, traveled up Ward Parkway, and then headed east, roaring through an elementary school full of kids on the east side as it went.

All hell broke loose in the room in which I was working.  The dispatchers were getting calls thick and fast, and calling just as quickly for the first responders.  My phone was ringing constantly from “reporters” who wanted information.

I knew it wasn’t real, but things were moving so quickly and intensely that the adrenaline and sense of urgency kicked in anyway.  FEMA had planned well – they used real locations and the names on the other end of my phone calls were real as well.  Every detail was covered…down to the air conditioning disappearing in the building in which we were all working.

We held news conferences to keep the public informed, set up shelters, dispatched rescuers and heavy equipment, and tried to keep up with the (simulated) tragedies that were unfolding.

By the end of the day, we were all exhausted.

The next day, we focused on the ‘recovery’ stage of a disaster – all the things that need doing once the stuff has stopped hitting the fan.  It was intense.

I came away from those four days in Maryland with a new appreciation for what it takes to respond to and recover from catastrophic disaster, a new appreciation for the multitude of people and organizations involved, and a new understanding of all that’s required in response and recovery.

As I recall, the FEMA course prompted changes and improvement in the city’s emergency response plan when we got back.

My experience was “just pretend” but underscored the importance of training, why firefighters and cops and hospital workers drill, drill, drill, till the responses come almost automatically.  The kind of response that kicked in for the St. John’s hospital workers who had just five minutes warning before the twister hit Joplin.

It also underscored the importance of good planning and collaboration.

So while I’ve been praying for the victims of last week’s tornado, I’ve also been praying for those responsible for dealing with it, from the mayor on down.

I cannot imagine the enormity of their task, nor their heartbreak.

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