Monthly Archives: September 2012

Zero to Crazy … Fun!

How do you turn a bunch of quiet, happy volunteers into a bunch of crazy dancing maniacs?  Turn on a camera!

CCA AMR

Paramedics tending to a victim at Hotel Anderson. Photo by J. Scott.

The Community College of Aurora hosted the AMR National Clinical and Safety Championships on Sunday, July 15.  Around thirty volunteers from various organizations, including O.M.E.G.A., Aurora Citizen’s Police Academy alumni and others were tasked with providing distractions while four teams competed in scored responder challenges which included driving an obstacle course, eluding fake children running into their ambulances and extracting victims from two locations.

The locations included an area in a simulated hotel where a room was packed to the rafters and closely resembled living quarters where a hoarder might live.  The room not only looked authentic, but smells were added to enhance the “ambiance”.  Several volunteers were on scene to provide live challenges to the responders as they assessed the scene.

AMR Bar Party 2

Drunk dancers on the bar counter add to the out of control party
environment. Photo by K. Cunningham.

My husband Dave and I were assigned to the second scene where the responders were tasked with rescuing a fall victim from a bar scenario.  The bar was equipped with music, fake alcohol and many enthusiastic patrons.  Working from guidelines provided by team leaders and training representatives on site, our role was to provide a distraction for the responders.

The poor teams had to deal with a rowdy crowd of pushy, noisy and flirty “drunks”.  The group did a great job getting into character for each scenario.  With each scenario we honed our skills and became more adept at distracting/torturing the responders.  Whether it was taking video and taking pictures with cell phones or asking for fire fighters phone numbers the responders had plenty to deal with.  They all did a pretty good job of dealing with the mayhem.

AMR Bar Party 1

It takes seconds for a good conga line to form. Photo by K. Cunningham.

During downtimes we were lucky enough to have Otis, the simulation controller, on hand to give us feedback and tell us about his experiences during his 27 years as a paramedic with Denver Health.  Yikes.  We became a finely tuned unit who could turn on our game faces at the drop of a bucket.  On one occasion Pony Anderson came in and said “can you guys show Fox 31 how it works”?  In a matter of seconds it was party on!  By the fourth scenario all it took was a five second notice to get the conga line started as a warm up before everyone hit their marks.

We had a great time and received wonderful feedback  from  officials  associated  with  the  exercise.  It was a blast.  The responders sure earned their stripes during this contest.  We wish them well.

Hoarder House

Firefighters, EMS personnel, policemen and all first responders live in a chaotic world of accidents, illness, disease and the worst of human nature.  From a young child choking, to a mother scalded by hot oil, to an octogenarian suffering a stroke – first responders must be equipped to handle all emergencies.  But how do they cope with a house filled with 77 cats and a foot deep layer of trash on the floor?  Or the house with 33 poodles that has never seen the light of day?  Ask any first responder to describe their idea of hell-on-earth, and you will most likely hear “Hoarder House”!

Hoarder House

Navigating a maze of hoarding debris can be an insurmountable challenge. Photo by J Hanson.

Emergency agencies in nearly every region of the country have training facilities to hone their life saving and rescue skills.  Some agencies construct elaborate mazes and real-life props on which their responders train to meet the usual and customary emergencies of life on the streets.  But how does a responder train for an encounter with a hoarder house?  With an estimated 2% to 5% of the population and between 6 and 15 million households that can be labeled as hoarders, it isn’t a matter of “if”, but only “when”, a responder will come face-to-face with a hoarder.  The Center for Simulation Studies at the Community College of Aurora is helping to overcome this hurdle with assistance from O.M.E.G.A.

How do you build a Hoarder House, you ask?

Well, first off you talk to Pony Anderson at the Community College of Aurora.  She will arrange for several rooms to be built as if they were a two-bedroom apartment, complete with a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room and two bedrooms.  However, that is the easy part.  A hoarder house is complete only when it’s been furnished with “stuff”.  We are not talking about just any “stuff”, however, but empty jars, craft projects that you started, but just never got around to completing, empty cereal boxes, dog food bags, cat food bags, books, magazines, newspapers, unwanted clothes, bedding – get the picture?  After spending several weeks badgering friends, family and neighbors for the needed items and hoping nobody will think you are losing your mind – “You want my old WHAT?” – the “stuff” is delivered to Pony’s staging area where it must be sorted, reworked and props fabricated before being relocated into the apartment.  Pony then will have them arranged for that “lived-in” look.

Hoarder Bathroom

There has to be an easier way to take a shower! Photo by J. Hanson.

A mainstay of common hoarders is the countless stacks of books, magazines and newspapers accumulated over years.  In order to cut down on weight, and make the stacks easier to move during restaging of exercises, these items must be fabricated into easily handled props.  How is a five-foot tall stack of old newspapers made easier to move and retain that authentic look?

You will need to make these realistic stacks of newspapers weigh only a pound, but give the impression of them weighing ten pounds.  To do this you need to spend hours folding the newsprint into accordion shaped strips about an inch and a half wide.  After you have about a jillion of them folded and set aside, apply three beads of caulk to the side of a small or medium cardboard box then gently lay the strips into the caulk edge.  To retain a realistic look, the strips can’t be too spread out or too close.

Now take the magazines and cut the spines off, leaving a two-inch wide strip, stack in empty stationary boxes and tie with twine.  Behold, you have a stack of magazines that weigh much less than the real McCoy.  Next, take your books and rip the pages out; glue a piece of Styrofoam between the covers and presto your book weighs a fraction of the original making it easier to stage and move.

For the empty pet food bags, stuff them with discarded plastic bags and other filler material that you have been gathering.  Seal the ends with clear tape and stack the bags up.  They look like they weigh a ton but they only weigh a few pounds.

The students who are taking EMT and fire training classes at the college need to get some firsthand experience as to what it is like when they have to respond to an incident at a “Hoarder’s” home.  They need to get the feel of the close quarters, piles and piles of junk, trash, dirty clothes, dirty dishes not to mention the smells and the critters running around.  Get the picture?

Operation Smoke Signal

Operation Smoke Signal III was a full-scale field exercise for a simulated tornado disaster occurring in the greater metro Denver area.  This was a follow up to a February 11 tabletop exercise by the same code name (phase II) hosted by the Disaster Management Institute at the Community College of Aurora.

Exercise Planning & Development

Over a series of seven planning sessions by O.M.E.G.A. personnel, the Incident Action Plan gradually took shape.  Original plans for the field exercise called for multiple sites, the Metro Fire Training Academy (MFTA) in Littleton and the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy (RMFA) in Denver-Stapleton.  The use of separate sites was in response to requests from the Amateur Radio Emergency Service group to participate in an exercise incorporating widely separated locations.  The rationale was to test the capabilities and effectiveness of ham radio equipment, personnel and training in a coordinated drill.

Originally set up as a multiple location drill, initial planning highlighted the difficulty in preparing two widely separated locations.  In essence, each location would function as a separate exercise operating on its own timeline with its own required resources.  As originally visualized, the only common planning factor between the two sites was the ham radio traffic.

The north site at RMFA is jointly used by Denver and Aurora Fire Departments.  Although we were not able to use the entire site, RMFA has unique characteristics that would provide a great learning experience for the CERT responders.  Among the unusual features available for the exercise was the first floor of the three-bay garage of a fully functioning firehouse.  Exercise planning for the north site continued through March and April while efforts to sign up CERT responders and role players for this location were met with poor results.

Ultimately, plans for north site, RMFA, had to be scuttled due to lack of participants.

O.M.E.G.A. was given unusually open access to MFTA, performing a detailed review of the site on three separate occasions.  As one would expect, the layout lends itself to drills, exercises and testing of firefighters.  Site headquarters included a large covered veranda used for registration/credentialing, one classroom upstairs used for exercise staff HQ and a communications center, one classroom downstairs with outside entry/exit used for staging of role players and a single-bay garage used for moulage, then reverting to in-play area after exercise started.  The hot-zone area included a five-story fire tower, several out buildings, an elaborate maze and numerous junk vehicles.  Use of the maze was restricted during exercise as it required advanced search skills to fully navigate.  A burn house was on the premises, but was judged to be too dirty for placement of role players, although the exterior of structure was in-play.  Also, a commuter plane fuselage was incorporated into exercise scenario.

OSS Full Scale

The crumpled fuselage of a crashed commuter plane, taken down by realistically bad weather. Photo by E Flynn.

With as many as 150 participants expected, parking was a concern.  Parking on-site is limited to a maximum of forty personal vehicles and the adjacent commercial building management group would not permit the use of their parking area within the commercial complex.  Fortunately, a local Lowe’s store offered the use of their overflow parking area which fit our needs perfectly.

The use of a real-life fire training academy has many advantages.  The training structures are unlike the usual venue for most disaster drills – schools, office and industrial buildings.  The training structures are grimy, smoke stained and caked with soot, and by their very nature of being training structures, have multiple floors with unusual floor plans.  Overall, the site presents itself as very realistic.

OSS Tower

A bird’s eye view of the MFTA from the top of the fire tower. Bad weather was a very prominent component of the exercise. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Exercise Review

Prior site visits and accurate maps greatly aided exercise set-up.  The moulage location, as well as separate staging areas for role-players and CERT responders, was quickly made operational.  Numerous areas within the “hot zone” were marked with CAUTION tape and OUT-OF-PLAY placards.  The unsettled weather on Friday evening deteriorated overnight to threatening skies on the day of the exercise.  The forecast called for rain in the afternoon and the staff was hopeful of finishing before the brunt of the bad weather arrived.

Check-in of arriving role players proceeded smoothly and they were then directed to the moulage area for makeup.  CERT responders and remaining incident staff were directed to their appropriate staging areas.  A small contingent of ARES personnel were organized to accompany exercise safeties to facilitate communications.  Prior to the exercise start, and in accordance with the Incident Action Plan, all participants received a safety briefing and the Rules-of-Engagement were discussed.  The exercise began at 9:00AM with hopes of decent weather and expectations of a successful conclusion.

Participants for this drill numbered:

OMEGA Staff – 10

CERT Responders – 21

Role players – 22

Event /Support Staff – 22

Total Participants – 75

Shortly after the responders formed up outside for selection of Incident Commander, Mother Nature took a turn for the worse.  By the time the IC was designated, the rains and wind gradually began building in intensity and did not let up until the drill was over nearly three hours later.

During the exercise planning, the possibility of inclement weather is always discussed and mitigating actions proposed.  Although the chance of rain was listed as moderate for later in the day, proper precautions were not in place for all participants.

Welfare of role players was a prime concern for the exercise safeties due to the nasty weather.  Most role players were stationed under cover, but a number volunteered to brave the elements by waiting in the rain and wind.  Several players near the plane fuselage lay in puddles of rainwater on the cold ground for over one hour with no apparent ill effects.  Surprisingly, all role players stayed in role throughout the exercise and the only real problem involved a CERT responder.

A cross-section of the CERT responders revealed a mixture of newly graduated players and seasoned responders.  The Incident Commander was a recent CERT graduate and eagerly started to organize the group.  Unfortunately, another recent CERT graduate wandered alone into the hot-zone within minutes of the exercise start and was immediately “put down”.  One of the first problems the IC encountered was retrieval of his missing responder.  But, it wouldn’t be the last of his problems!

Inclement weather is supposed to be factored into the planning for any CERT exercise.  The Incident Action Plan contains a Safety Analysis listing potential hazards and mitigations.  The Safety Analysis identified heavy rain as a hazard, but overlooked a moderate rain event, something that CERT responders should plan for.  Many of the responders were equipped to deal with the rain and wind, but not all.  The rain led the Incident Commander to set up the Incident Command Post and Medical Operations in the attached garage of the MFTA headquarters.  With better weather, both would most likely have been set-up outside in widely separated locations.  The proximity of IC to the Medical area didn’t adversely affect the drill during the early stages of the exercise, but would be a source of problems later.

OSS ICP

Incident Command made the best of a realistically bad situation. Phot by M. Khaytsus.

In spite of the rain, the exercise proceeded as planned.  Search teams returned with good information, allowing the Command Staff to develop effective rescue plans.  In short order, the rescue teams began extricating victims to the Medical Area and the exercise appeared to be ahead of schedule.  However, a new twist was about to be thrown at the responders.  The exercise Planner developed a series of “inject” scenarios that would impart changing conditions on all of the participants during the course of the exercise.  When most of the victims had been located and removed to Medical, the Planner injected a leaking fuel tank in the headquarters garage.  As previously mentioned, the Incident Command Post and Medical Area were located in this area and all participants had to relocate immediately.  The Medical Operations were relocated to the basement classroom in the headquarters, thus moving all victims out of the bad weather.  Relocation of the Command Post created another problem.

In their haste to move, the Command Post was relocated to an empty shed in the hot-zone with the command staff, except the Incident Commander, moving to the new location as a group.  However, the Incident Commander visited the Medical Operations area first and later crossed into the hot-zone alone, an obvious infraction of the Incident safety rules.  An exercise Safety immediately took him out of action on the spot, meaning he had to wait until he could be rescued by one of the search teams.  Unfortunately, while awaiting rescue in the rain and the wind, he became chilled due to improper clothing for the weather.  Once rescued, he assumed command again, but realized his decision making was erratic and he began to shiver uncontrollably, an indication of hypothermia.  Ultimately, the Incident Commander chilled to a point of stage two hypothermia and had to be replaced by the Operations Chief.  Shortly after this, the exercise was called and all participants gathered for a hotwash, or debriefing.

Exercise Hotwash

All participants were praised for braving the weather and attending the exercise.  The role players were amazing in their toughness under the bad conditions and every one stayed in character during the entire exercise.  With the exception of the responder Incident Commander, all responders continued to function effectively without any problems up to the finish.  Everyone noted how the bad weather added to the realism of the exercise and offered a new perspective on the difficulties faced by real life responders during real life emergencies.

Of particular note was an observation by one of the role players.  The individual in question, himself a recent graduate of the CERT program and playing a victim for the first time, was placed near the plane fuselage and fully exposed to the rain and wind.  He observed that numerous teams of responders either passed close to him, or approached him openly, but few spoke to him directly.  As a role player, he suggested that speaking to the victims was very important in keeping the victims spirits up.  He mentioned that his experience at this drill would definitely affect his actions as a responder in future exercises.  He will be more proactive in speaking to victims as a means of reassuring them that assistance is close by.

DSN CERT Program

There is no such thing as a “typical” CERT class – but some classes are more atypical than others.  The usual CERT program encompasses a wide range of demographics.  It can include a variety of ages from 18 to 70-plus, an assortment of occupations from students to housewives to clergy and top level managers, and a wide range of physical abilities and disabilities.  There are many individual reasons for wanting to learn about CERT, but everyone shares a common trait – they are voluntarily giving their free time to learn how to take care of themselves and other community members in the event an emergency overwhelms the first responders.

Teaching CERT to a group of Denver School of Nursing (DSN) students breaks new ground, however.  DSN is an acclaimed private school of nursing advertising small class sizes and one-on-one teaching.  In late 2011 the administration decided to add a mandatory disaster drill program to the leadership training curriculum and asked O.M.E.G.A. to teach CERT classes for the school’s students.  The first class was held in early spring and a second one was offered in late spring.  Class participants would be sixth semester students nearing the end of their nursing education and needed the CERT course credit to graduate.  This presented a challenge to the CERT teaching staff – how should the students be held accountable for their program performance?  How should the instructors teach a classroom of students who don’t necessarily want to be there?  In a “standard” CERT environment, the participants voluntarily attend class and generally have high individual expectations for learning, and give their best effort in the classroom and practical exercise.  With the DSN program, sitting through class and showing up at the exercise would earn the needed credits.  Could the standard program successfully fit their needs?

Class room experience:

Early Spring Session:

The early spring program was an abbreviated course taught on two consecutive Saturdays in February, with the practical exercise taking place on Sunday, February 19.  Student behavior during class room presentations confirmed fears of the teaching staff – minimal interest at best, and complete disinterest at worse.  Observing the class from the back of the room found that many students surfed the web, completed homework for other subjects, texted on cell phones, or just slept.  It appeared that the students wanted to be anywhere but in classroom!  The lone exception was the unit on triage.

The CERT program contains two units on disaster medical and the typical instructor would think that nursing students should know as much as, or more than, the CERT curriculum.  However, this class of students indicated a strong interest in field triage, as opposed to clinical or hospital triage.  When told that emergency triage should take no more than two minutes, and could be done in as little as thirty seconds, they acted surprised.  They realized that functioning in a disaster emergency without the benefit of a majority of supplies and equipment found in a hospital environment was completely outside their regular studies.  Upon completion of class time, the students were anxious to begin the practical exercise.

Late Spring Session:

The late spring program was taught over a period of eight weeks with the practical exercise taking place on May 19.  Although mandatory class attendance was again declared by DSN administration, a scheduling conflict with other required courses resulted in many of the students missing one or more units.  Only six of the thirty-one students enrolled for the course attended every class.  And, as previously mentioned, the spotty attendance was compounded by the lack of student accountability for learning the course material.

The lack of attendance created a dilemma for the program instructors as they attempted to comply with program regulations.  The Department of Homeland Security, administrators of the national CERT program acting through the Citizens Corps, requires participants to have twenty-four hours of classroom instruction and a practical exercise.  In addition, every slide of each PowerPoint presentation, one for each unit, must be viewed by all participants.  These rules ensure that course material has been taught per program guidelines, limiting liability to instructors.  To verify that participants read the course material, it was decided to review and test all participants who missed any class time.  Ultimately, test scores confirmed the students understood the material well enough to pass with excellent scores.  Once again, they looked forward to the practical exercise.

Practical exercise:

Early Spring Class-2012:

The O.M.E.G.A. training staff was skeptical of student’s performance for the upcoming practical as they generally appeared disinterested in the classroom.  To the contrary, however, the practical went very well – almost too well!

Exact numbers of role players and CERT student-responders are not available, but there appeared to be at least a 2-to-1 ratio of role players to responders.  For lack of a better venue, the DSN building was chosen for the exercise site.  The exercise planners noted that the building has an unusual floor plan, utilizing an isolated mezzanine layout and incorporating a mock-up of a hospital ward, and believed that the responders would struggle with the search-and-rescue aspects of the exercise.  However, the student-responders pulled a surprise on the own.

DSN Class 1

Mission Briefing. Denver School of Nursing students receive their briefing for the practical exercise. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Although they appeared to be lackadaisical in their approach to classroom learning, they had met the night before the exercise to develop a general plan for who would assume duties of division chiefs.  Creation of their Incident Command structure was aided by a student volunteering to be the Incident Commander.  The remainder of the command staff was in place and ready to proceed.  A critical factor working in student-responders favor was an intimate knowledge of the building, including the building’s unique floor plan and the location of unusual nooks and crannies.  Rather than struggling with the building search, they excelled at finding the quickest routes and knew where to look for hidden victims.  The superior performance of the search and rescue portion was balanced by near chaos in the medical area as the number of victims quickly overwhelmed the medical staff.  Overall, their performance matched that of most graduating CERT classes – rough around the edges but basically well done.

DSN Class 2

Patient transport. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

With the student-responders knowledge of the building, and their planning the night before, the practical finished in less than two hours.  Although the usual difficulties associated with practical exercises were encountered – not separating Incident Command from Operations and Medical, lack of properly identifying search areas and results, lack of communication and documentation in all areas – they located and extricated all victims.  Due to the rapid conclusion of the first drill, the instructors decided to run another simulation but with a twist to challenge the student-responders.  For the second drill, the two stairways onto the mezzanine were blocked off and screaming victims placed in full view.  The blocked stairways were the only means of access to the mezzanine forcing the responders to devise alternative plans.  Coming off a successful first drill and believing they could handle any situation, the student-responders were motivated to help the victims but were prevented by the blocked stairways.  Within a fairly short time, however, they arrived at an “outside-the-box” solution using a construction ladder located at the back of the building and fabricating an escape route for the victims.  Once again, all the victims were rescued.

Late Spring Class-2012:

Based on experience with the practical for the early spring program, the O.M.E.G.A. staff knew a change was needed for the late spring practical.  Ideally, relocating the drill to another site would remove the student’s advantage of familiarity with the building.  However, numerous attempts to find an off-site location for the drill were unsuccessful.  The DSN location would have to be used again, but fictional hazards would be placed throughout the building to counteract the student’s knowledge of the floor plan.  The hazards included flooded areas, small and large fires, live electrical wires, downed electrical wires that were not arcing, a bad smell to simulate gas leaks, and a leaking propane tank.  In addition, the mezzanine stairways were partially blocked, the main stairways connecting all floors were also partially blocked to prevent unimpeded passage from basement to rooftop, and all electricity was ruled out of service.  The result was a much more difficult structure in which to search!

Although fewer role players were used for this drill, a nearly 2-to-1 ratio of role player to responder was maintained.  Total participant numbers for this drill were:

Role players – 56

CERT Responders – 31

OMEGA Staff – 6

Support Staff – 1

DSN Staff – 3

Total – 97

The large number of participants gave a realistic feel to the drill.  Several role players were positioned in isolated areas, while others roamed the building looking for companions.  In addition, a handful of media reporters were simulated by role players and were instructed to pester the student-responders at every opportunity.  In addition, this drill utilized stuffed animals to simulate household pets.  Three stuffed dogs and two stuffed cats were placed throughout the exercise site and were tagged with various scenarios for student-responders to consider.

Once the exercise began, it was apparent that this group of students did not communicate with each other as well as those in the early spring exercise.  This group was not nearly as organized and did not work together as well.  The Incident Commander was selected by O.M.E.G.A. staff and performed a credible job, although she had difficulty communicating with others and didn’t exhibit superior leadership skills.

DSN Class 3

Responders recover victims in the building stairwell. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Search of the building was noticeably more difficult in this drill.  The student-responders struggled at first with victim rescue due to blocked stairwells and strategically placed hazards.  Eventually, however, they came together and performed well.  In one case, a victim staged behind hazard boundaries was rescued by voice triage.  By working together, a group of student-responders convinced her to crawl to a location where straps from a backpack could be used to pull the victim to safety – an excellent example of team work and thinking outside-the-box.

Hot-wash:

In appraising both practical exercises, the DSN students’ performance generally mirrored those of standard CERT classes.  Most fundamentals learned in the classroom are ignored when the pace of the exercise increases, but are usually recalled as the drill progresses.  As with most practical exercises, communication between responders was spotty, but improved over time.  Some aspects of CERT training, such as marking doorways to indicate search results, are seldom utilized and may require increased training to imprint.  Although the DSN students are training professionally in a field of medicine, they were unprepared for the rudimentary level of medicine in a disaster drill.  The CERT course demonstrates that disasters and emergencies can occur anytime and anyplace, outside the reach of modern medicine, and responders must be self-reliant to be most effective.

Training staff techniques require modification for future DSN programs or for any program where attendance is mandatory.  Classroom planning should include greater engagement of the participants in either discussion groups or small group exercises.  In addition, satisfactorily passing the program test should also be required.

Famous Colorado Tornados

Strength Location Date
F4/F5 Thurman, CO August 10, 1924
F3 Weld County, CO May 15, 1952
F3 Rye, CO July 31, 1955
F3 Sedgwick County, CO June 27, 1960
F3 McClave, CO October 17, 1960
F3 Campo, CO May 9, 1972
F3 Sterling, CO August 15, 1974
F3 Brush, CO May 10, 1975
F3 Bennett, CO May 18, 1975
F4 Campo, CO May 18, 1977
F3 Colorado Springs, CO June 13, 1977
F3 Colorado Springs, CO June 24, 1979
F2 Thornton, CO June 3, 1981
F3 Bennett, CO June 12, 1982
F3 Denver, CO June 15, 1988
F3 Limon, CO June 6, 1990
F3 Burlington, CO July 7, 1993
F3 Last Chance, CO July 21, 1993
F3 Brush, CO May 30, 1996
F3 Sterling, CO July 5, 2000
F3 McClave, CO May 29, 2001
EF3 Holly, CO March 28, 2007
EF3 Windsor, CO May 22, 2008
EF0 Douglas County, CO August 24, 2008
EF1 Aurora, CO June 7, 2009

The Year of the Tornado

In February of 2012 O.M.E.G.A. took part in a day long tabletop exercise hosted by the Disaster Management Institute, which was designed to help us understand and evaluate our communications capabilities.  This may sound like a simple experiment, but the reality of communications in a disaster is far more complicated than simply picking up a phone.

For starters, the concept behind the simulation was that the metropolitan area suffered a complete infrastructure failure, resulting in loss of the electrical grid and ultimately every piece of equipment that would rely on it.  With power gone, all utilities that we take for granted disappeared as well – electricity to power homes and offices, street lighting, telephones, water, sewer, gas.  It was as if the metropolitan area descended into the stone age.

Operation Smoke Signal Damage Map

Operation Smoke Signal Damage Map

The disaster that hit Denver was an EF5 tornado with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour, turning into rubble everything in its path.  The possibility of a tornado this strong in the metropolitan area has long been debated in the emergency management community and while believed to be very unlikely, is considered a possibility for the Front Range.  Precedent for storms this strong does exist in Colorado.  Back in 1924 a powerful tornado, estimated to be borderline F4/F5, hit Thurman, Colorado, killing ten people and devastating the farming town, making this tornado the strongest and deadliest in Colorado history.  Thurman was not resilient enough to survive this event.

Tornados in our recent memory – Holly (2007) and Windsor (2008) – both rated EF3 in power and Aurora’s 2009 tornado was a strong EF1.  As recently as June of 1988 an F3 tornado touch down in the southern part of Denver.

The scenario was very plausible and we were left with the absolute basics – our go kits – equipped to last 48 to 96 hours, depending on the resourcefulness and determination of the kit’s owner, and a charged radio.  The teams participating in this exercise included ARES District 22, ARES District 27, Brighton CERT, Clear Creek CERT, Colorado STAR MRC, Heritage Eagle Bend CERT, Rampart Search and Rescue and, of course, O.M.E.G.A.

Operation Smoke Signal Tabletop

Participants in the Operation Smoke Signal II tabletop exercise. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

The immediate painful realization was that we are unable to communicate with our served agencies because all infrastructure that we rely on was gone.  The second uncomfortable piece of information was that we are unable to communicate with our own members beyond a certain range and are ultimately unable to take inventory and identify who is alive and well from our own teams.  The path of the mile wide tornado did pass over the houses of members of various groups and also across cache locations where several teams stored their gear.  Adding to the complexity of getting to cache locations across fields of rubble that used to be neighborhoods was the realization that the gear was irretrievably gone.  And our one final pain point was that we were potentially working in neighborhoods where other teams operated and had no established relationships with these groups.  Or a means of communicating with them.  Most of the teams fully lacked communications interoperability.

Lessons learned from this simulation were taken home by all of the participating teams to evaluate and understand existing weakness in capabilities and to develop a plan to solve at least some of the problems identified.

The goal of the simulation is not to develop a quick one time fix, but to look into the future and understand how communications capabilities are impacted by disaster and how to best leverage them to remain an effective team in the event of a catastrophic incident.  A part of this long term plan is to establish a better relationship with other teams in the area and to train jointly in order to be more effective when responding to disasters.

Year of the Tornado

“Year of the Tornado” exercise sequence for Operation Smoke Signal.

Operation Runway Rumble

Ready.  Set.  WAIT!!

The November 2011 full scale exercise, Operation Runway Rumble, got off to a very rocky start.  As usual, we were having trouble getting a location for the exercise.  We had previously decided we would like to do a tornado exercise and were planning around that, but we needed a location.  Gary Freeman, the deputy exercise coordinator, and Dave Cook, had been working diligently on a site location.

At one point, we thought we had a location.  However, it was too small and had very little parking.  Looking at a secondary location, we also found it to be unusable.  While looking for a location and planning the exercise, we were also helping out with Operation Mountain Guardian.  Though this was a lot of work and effort, it was a blessing in disguise.  Jenn Scott worked with Pony Anderson and got us permission to use the Lowery 900 building.  We now had a location!!

Operation Runway Rumble 1

The morning briefing at Operation Runway Rumble. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

Planning continued.  Due to prior commitments, the exercise coordinator was not available for a two week period just prior to the exercise.  This left the planning to the deputy.  Gary stepped up to the challenge and did an excellent job.

Nursing students from the Denver School of Nursing volunteered to be our role players.  Based on pre-registration, the role players out numbered the responders at about a 4-to-1 ratio.  The responders had their work cut out for them.

We had plenty of participants.  We had a plan.  We had a date.  We had a location.  We were set to go.

NOT!!!

Operation Runway Rumble 2

There is a lot of rescuing to be done at a simulated 300 room hotel. Photo by M. Khaytsus.

A little over a week before the exercise, campus personnel informed us that the restroom facilities open on weekends were not equipped to handle 200 people.  We needed to find an alternative.  We needed to find port-a-potties at a reasonable rate (can you say cheap or even free?).  We were within five days of having to cancel the exercise when Carolyn Bluhm, Denver Office of Emergency Management, came through for us.  She was able to find two port-a-potties, have them delivered before the exercise started and picked up when all was said and done.  The exercise was back on.

Many people think planning our exercises is easy and there are no issues.  This is not true.  All exercises have their challenges.  What makes planning the exercises a success is the planning team working together to work through the issues.  What makes the exercises a success is the participants.

Check out the O.M.E.G.A. website at http://www.OMEGAresponders.org/ for more information and to find out about our next exercise.