Are simulations inclusive?

Many cities and counties are realizing the importance of including faith-based responders in their mock disasters.


Volunteers help cut up downed trees after a tornado. (DNN photo by Heather Moyer)
Credit: Disaster News Network

Many cities and counties are realizing the importance of including faith-based responders in their mock disasters.

Don Jones said many churches are surprised at how they can help – and then many in the local government are surprised to hear just what the faith community can offer.

“We can bring in health kits, flood buckets, and more – so many folks are surprised to hear that,” explained Jones, disaster response coordinator for the southwest Texas conference of the United Methodist Church. He added that once that awareness is raised, however, local government soon learns to rely on and call upon the faith community when disaster strikes.

Jerry Foltz, disaster response coordinator for the United Church of Christ’s central Atlantic conference, said he has been invited to numerous disaster simulations – but more invites need to be sent out.

“There’s a lot more work to be done all around in figuring out how to utilize chaplains and the rest of the faith community,” said Foltz, who also serves as chaplain for Fairfax County, Virginia. “(The faith community) also has a long way to go. Overall, we often just seem interested in our own affairs. We have so much more awareness and preparation to do.

“The whole faith community needs to be more oriented toward this.”

An important item brought to the table by the faith community is their ability to address spiritual needs during a crisis, agreed Jones and Foltz. “I think one of the more crucial things theological people have to deal with is ‘why’ and ‘what is God doing’ and ‘why did this happen?’ ” noted Foltz. “We have to be able to respond to that in some way.”

To respond to such an important issue, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD) created an emotional and spiritual care guide for responders, which is available on the NVOAD Web site.

People such as Foltz and Jones continue to raise awareness amongst their churches as best they can. “It’d be great to have more pastors who would be willing to be available to help and prepare their churches,” said Foltz. “We need to have people to count on when we need extra hands.”

Meanwhile, cities and counties across the U.S. hold regular mock disasters in order to meet federal homeland security standards under the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

In late March, emergency responders in Hillsboro, Ore., held a mock disaster that simulated a radioactive “dirty” bomb. Assisted by the Critical Decision Institute (CDI), emergency responders used a new portable technology to simulate the disaster.

“People were looking for ways to train as a community within their community,” said Norm Eder, CDI project manager. He added that his organization, a nonprofit focused on training communities to be disaster-prepared, had also heard many requests for a training program that was more interactive than the usual “tabletop” exercises so many responders had already done in cities other than their own.

“So we created a highly portable technology for that – we develop what the community wants for training.”

The CDI technology for the Hillsboro simulation was a two-hour playable scenario that included local emergency personnel, and a local television news station. The idea is to include every group possible that would be included in the event of a real emergency.

Eder said the CDI technology has other benefits as well, including its reusability, its cost-effectiveness, and its adaptability. “Our system is a living thing – it’s not burned onto a CD and it isn’t closed in,” he explained. “We can extend scenarios into the disaster recovery mode – so it can run at any speed.

“And communities can continue to build on it. The simulation can be changed, enriched or deepened – it’s not just a one-time thing.”

The technology can also be reused because the CDI team teaches local responders how to run the model themselves. The Hillsboro simulation was held mostly for local emergency responders such as fire and police personnel, but future simulations could include the private sector and faith groups.

Eder noted that the CDI technology is starting to get noticed. The organization will run another simulation in Hawaii in mid-April, then a few others in southern Oregon this summer. He hopes to schedule more communities for the remainder of the year. Currently, the organization is funded by a grant from the state of Oregon, but the hopes are to expand nationally once that grant expires.

In Suwannee County, Fla., last month, officials ran a simulation called the “beleaguered bus,” where the disaster simulated was a busload of passengers passing through the county became mysteriously sick.

“We had to contain them, treat them, take them to the hospital, host the non-sick passengers, and then feed and take care of them,” said Kimberly Thomas, assistant director of the Suwannee County Office of Emergency Management. 

More than 75 people took part in the simulation, including law enforcement and nonprofit organizations.

Thomas said the county tries to simulate disaster frequently to keep agencies prepared. In the past, the county has simulated a school shooting, a domestic security breach, and several other emergencies that have helped train the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

CERT is how the county trains its response volunteers, and Thomas said they are always looking for more people to get involved. “Disaster response is a team effort,” she noted.

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