By David A. Foust, American Red Cross volunteer
Earthquakes can happen any time in our region. When we are proactive about preparedness, we are more likely to react in the right ways, more quickly adapt to tough challenges and recover rapidly from difficulties. In that spirit of preparedness, about 50 local volunteers from the American Red Cross gathered together in Riverside, Calif., to participate in a full-scale disaster relief exercise on Saturday, February 1, 2020.
The exercise scenario simulated a 5.8 earthquake centered five miles west of Riverside. In the simulation, the City of Riverside requested that the Red Cross open a Care and Reception Center for residents who were afraid to go back into their homes or had no place to go. It is common in the aftermath of earthquakes that evacuees may have concerns about being indoors, so the Care and Reception Center was set up in a “non-traditional” setting, outdoors in the Red Cross Riverside chapter headquarters parking lot, providing additional challenges of dealing with weather, security and privacy.
The exercise’s training objective was to allow volunteers to practice several response and recovery operations, including opening and running an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), opening and staffing a Care and Reception Center and, since the scenario’s curveball was no cell phone service or internet connectivity, setting up and using ham radio communications. Disaster Services Technology played a large role in communications between the Red Cross and the public. When people do not have access to internet or phone lines, they will turn to radios to disseminate information. This is why it is so important to include a radio, and extra batteries, in an emergency kit. During a disaster, a radio could be the only way you receive information.
Susan Tovey, staffing lead for the exercise, was able to practice checking people in and creating lodging for them - all the duties that they would have to do in a disaster response. “I am very passionate about training and exercises like this because I had a life-changing experience happen to me right after attending one of these trainings about five years ago,” Tovey said. If not for the training she had through an exercise like this one, she would not have been prepared for a potentially life-threatening situation that occurred during a real event soon afterwards. “I had recently completed a sheltering exercise a week before a real event. Included in our training was protecting the dignity and privacy of the people we serve. While working at the shelter during the event, an initially very nice individual showed up at the shelter wanting to know if a specific person was residing in the shelter. When I informed him that we do not disclose the identity of our guests and that he could leave his name and number and if she is here she can contact him, he became very irate to the point that the police had to intervene to remove him. Later, when I found the lady and showed her the note, she became terrified and said that ‘he can’t know that I am here.’ If it weren’t for the exercise that I completed the week before, I might have let that guy in. In the exercise, we practiced that if someone comes in looking for other people, we have to protect the identity of our clients. Without practicing at that exercise, I could have put her in harm’s way.”
According to Gerald Winkel, Disaster Program Manager for the American Riverside Cross of Riverside, “Exercises are a great way to test our plans, make adjustments and improve our ability to respond to future events. This particular exercise challenged our way of operating relying on resources at hand without additional support from other chapters, regions or our national properties.”
The Red Cross has a mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors. Disasters can and do strike unexpectedly, so exercises are vital ways of testing and improving capabilities without the added stress of a true disaster.
To become a Red Cross volunteer, please visit redcross.org/volunteer.