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May 11, 2011

FEMA official: Disaster practice may aid survival

By Kim Lamb Gregory
Ventura County Star

VENTURA, Calfi. — If they hadn't rehearsed for a possible disaster, emergency responders in Tuscaloosa, Ala., might not have been prepared when their operations center was hit by a tornado.

Richard Serino, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's deputy administrator, told the story Tuesday during a 36-hour disaster preparedness drill being held at Freedom Park in Camarillo.

"They had to go to their alternative EOC (emergency operations center)," Serino said. "The reason they knew what to do is because just one week before, they practiced what would happen if they lost this EOC." Coordinated by the Ventura County Public Health Department's Emergency Preparedness Office, Operation Medical Shelter 2011 involves about 950 representatives and volunteers who would be needed after an earthquake, fire, flood or terrorist attack.

"What impressed me here today was the diversity of folks," Serino said. "You've got folks from public health, the fire department, paramedics, volunteers with ham radios, faith-based operations. ... The government can't do it alone." Also participating are representatives from every hospital in the county, all branches of law enforcement, the American Red Cross, service dogs and their handlers, and a bomb squad.

The drill was funded through state public health emergency preparedness grants, a program prompted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"As a result of that, it was determined that public health departments nationwide were underfunded, unprepared and working with archaic equipment," county health department program manager Diane Dobbins said during a news conference.

This large-scale exercise, she said, allows first responders to get familiar with equipment and procedures.

"All these things would otherwise be on boxes and shelves," she said. "What you're seeing are the sites that would be used. We need to learn how to connect the hoses and figure out how things work." The exercise was not open to the public. On Monday, participants set up tents to house each agency and hold classes that took place all day Tuesday. Because hospitals might be damaged during an earthquake, one clearly marked tent with cots inside was set up for each county hospital.

About 40 classes were offered Tuesday, covering everything from radiation exposure to first aid to explosives recognition.

Senior Sheriff's Deputy Michael Rompal is among eight trained bomb technicians in the county. He said he took five weeks of bomb squad training with the federal government after becoming a deputy.

"At the end of the Sheriff's Academy, part of the presentation was blowing some stuff up," he said with a grin. "I was hooked from then on." Seated in their own tent were members of a ham radio society who volunteer to help with communications in case cellphones and computers are no longer working.

"We're not bound by the traditional issue that shuts everything else down," said ham radio volunteer Wayne Woodhams.

The Ventura County Sheriff's Department rescue helicopter thudded over the field and hovered as deputies performed a hoist rescue demonstration. All faces were turned skyward as a cable snaked down to the grass and was snagged by a deputy on the ground. He hooked the cable onto a flat basket carrying a life-size dummy, then gave a hand signal to start lifting the "patient."

Lying on the grass getting his belly scratched was another first responder: Dusty, a golden retriever. The trained service dog and handler Archie Herrera are volunteers for the county health department. Dusty is a "medical detection" dog, which means he can find people - often seniors - based on the medication they are taking. This can be helpful if a senior on Alzheimer's medication, for example, is trapped in a home and un able to call for help.

"I get a sample of the medication, grind it up in my hand and let him sniff it," Herrera said.

The training continues today, when about 140 volunteers will act as victims of a mock earthquake, each with specific injuries. They will be rushed to the tent city so first responders and volunteers can put all they've learned to the test.

Copyright 2011 Ventura County Star

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