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Learning how to Prepare for the Worst in Washington State

Samantha Malott, Moscow-Pullman Daily News | July 16, 2015

(TNS) - Local emergency responders, public safety departments and county and university-wide policy makers spent the past week training in Pullman with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare for a catastrophic event on the Palouse.

Elizabeth King, emergency management coordinator for Washington State University, said the goal of the FEMA Integrated Emergency Management Course was to help bring individuals from the university, city and county together and organize a joint response to a disaster. Hundreds of organizations across the country apply to participate each year, but only 15 are selected for the federally funded program.

Participants included law enforcement from WSU, the Pullman Police Department, the Whitman County Sheriff's Department and Washington State Patrol, along with representatives of Pullman and rural fire departments, area public works departments, public health districts, hospitals, Whitcom, the Pullman School District, Pullman Transit, WSU facilities, the National Weather Service, WSU communications and multiple policy makers from the university, city and county. Numerous other departments and individuals throughout the area and across the state were also present, along with evaluators and instructors from FEMA.

Participants spent Monday and Tuesday in classes and round-table discussions, before moving into a scenario-based exercise Wednesday, which focused on a plane crash near the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital during a homecoming football game at Martin Stadium.

Participants were split up into teams and tasked with the responsibility of managing the response to the crash. Throughout the scenario, additional events - ranging from fires, car accidents, fights at the stadium, medical calls, a lack of supplies and an overload of 911 calls - continued to occur.

"The point is to get everyone more comfortable with working with one another," King said.

Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson said such trainings are important because it creates a working relationship before disaster strikes.

"This is the first time we've gotten all these players together," he said.

Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said it's valuable to know what resources are needed and how they will be provided for serious incidents, such as a plane crash.

Pullman Fire Chief Mike Heston, who was assigned to the Emergency Operations Center for the scenario, said the training was the first time the fire department had been able to fully set up and use an EOC. The training will allow him and other local officials to better get out messages in emergency situations, he said.

Pam Collins, adjunct instructor with FEMA, played the role of a news correspondent for the scenario and provided breaking news about the crash to the teams. Collins said the flow of information - to emergency personnel, the public and media - is just as important as the response.

"Communication is always identified as the area that needs improvement," she said.

Douglas Kahn, the master exercise practitioner for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security FEMA, said the time to learn how to best respond is not at 3 a.m. when disaster strikes, which is why they try to make the situation as real as possible. FEMA instructors were on hand only to help give guidance and suggestions about what may work better in certain situations, not to pass or fail the participants, he said.

©2015 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho)

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