Statewide catastrophe? Just another day in the life of an outreach professional

The date is March, 24th 2014 and Vermont is facing a potential terrorist attack, a major outbreak of a highly contagious virus, a need for mass care, and plethora of other calamities.  Fortunately for the citizens and visitors of Vermont, this is all a drill and the date is actually June 6th, 2014. This is the start of a 36 hour continuous activation of the state emergency operations center (SEOC) in Waterbury Vermont as part of CAT2, the Vermont statewide catastrophic exercise.  Our outreach specialist, Zack Borst arrives at the SEOC at 6:30am prepared to test his outreach abilities in a highly fluid and stressful environment.

TRC Outreach Professional Zack Borst at the State Emergency Operation Center

TRC Outreach Professional Zack Borst at the State Emergency Operation Center

The Transportation Research Center loaned Zack to the SEOC to help fill a need in the Joint Information Center which is responsible for public information, rumor control, and public safety messaging and alerting.  Zack has a long history of emergency response both professionally and as a volunteer and the TRC was happy to share his skills in response and outreach to support the operation.  The TRC works regularly with many of the agencies that are involved in the exercise and this was a chance to work alongside them in a different way.  Zack was joined by UVM Associate Vice President of Administrative and Facilities Services Bill Ballard who was playing as Deputy Logistics Section Chief.  Both staff members have worked in the SEOC in the past and were asked to support in the statewide exercise because of their knowledge and skill sets.  A third UVM staff member, Kelly Hamshaw from UVM Community Development and Applied Economics, was also participating as an exercise evaluater and was monitoring and documenting the actions of the players in the SEOC.

The start of the 36 hour operation began with an outbreak of Norovirus, a gastrointestinal virus that causes severe nausea.  Hospitals filled fast but overall it was a calm response.  Around 10am there was a report of a train leaking fluids that were sickening livestock from the Canadian border all the way down to Montpelier where the train stopped and then exploded.  This led to significant traffic issues, hazardous materials exposures, possible terrorist involvement and a generally chaotic situation that needed to be brought under control.

Staff receive a morning briefing upon arrival at the State Emergency Operations Center.

Staff receive a morning briefing upon arrival at the State Emergency Operations Center.

Zack’s role was to help ensure the public had correct and up to date information regarding the incident and to try to identify and eliminate any rumors and misinformation that may exist.  He worked with two other staff members who throughout the day answered phones, directed media inquries, produced press releases, created warning and evacuation information, and used social media to give and receive information.  Bill Ballard’s role was to help ensure that any resources needed were provided and accounted for and to provide services and equipment to the SEOC so that everyone can do their job.  If you need something, it’s his job to find it and get it.

Associate Vice President Bill Ballard works in the Logistics Section at the State Emergency Operation Center

Associate Vice President Bill Ballard works in the Logistics Section at the State Emergency Operation Center

Both Bill and Zack were exhausted at the end of their 12 hours shift having dealt with one disaster after the next but appreciated the experience.  “My time here helps me to better handle my position by exposing me to high stress public outreach and helps me further develop my relationship with state agencies.”  Zack said after returning to his office on Monday.  “These agencies help us with our research so getting to help them and the state was a great opportunity.” The exercise which was two years in the making and involved almost 1,600 participants came to conclusion on Saturday afternoon.  A “hot-wash” was held in the SEOC immediately following the 36 hour operation to allow participants to be quickly debriefed.  Everyone shared their experience through the exercise and shared some positive and negative anecdotes of the last two days.  A much more detailed after action report will be published in the coming months.  “My participation in this event was just another way the TRC and UVM gives back to the state and it was a very fulfilling experience” Zack said as a final reflection on the exercise.

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