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Disaster Training: A Volunteer's Viewpoint of Austin Urban Shield

Author: Tony L. Ellis

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-02-22
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According to Alameda County, California, Urban Shield is “a national model, full-scale exercise, designed to assess and validate the speed, effectiveness and efficiency of capabilities, as well as test the adequacy of regional policies, plans, procedures and protocols” (Urban Shield, 2013).  Urban Shield events require hundreds of volunteers, to portray victims in a variety of disaster scenarios.  When possible local residents are used and that is how I got involved with the Austin, Texas 2012 exercise.

In November, I received an email about Urban Shield and the need for volunteers.  As I researched what the exercise was about, I quickly realized it was no small endeavor.  This event involved no fewer than 28 agencies, organizations, and military groups, spanning Travis, Williamson, and Hayes counties.  I signed up and waited to hear where and when to report, to participate.

Right: The "injured" await field treatment from EMS responders

On December 3rd, the day of the event, I reported to the Travis Country Expo Center where I joined over 600 other volunteers.  Over the next few hours, I received a card with my symptoms and simulated vital signs, assigned to a group of victims with similar injuries, and briefed on what to expect.  In preparation for the exercise, volunteers had makeup applied (moulage) to provide visual effects to make the injuries more realistic and to prompt simulated treatment from EMS responders.  Some had nails sticking out of their head, while others had severe burns or even amputated limbs.  The makeup was very convincing.  At 2 PM, police detonated a loud “flash-bang” to simulate an explosion, thus starting the exercise.

Left: Triage.

Victims exited the expo center building and began acting out their symptoms.  Over the next 30 minutes, various first responder units arrived.  The injured were contained in a small area by a ring of police and military personnel.  Fire trucks were set up as decontamination showers and medical personnel established triage stations in tents and trailers.  Medical staff evaluated victims then directed them to various locations, based on injuries.  Some went through the decontamination showers, others directly to ambulance or life-flight helicopters.  Based on my injuries, I joined about 20 other people, then a bus shuttled us to the new Seton hospital in Kyle, Texas.

To “overwhelm the emergency room staff,” the busload of victims split into three groups.  The first group entered the emergency room, followed about 15 minutes later by the second, then the third in another 15 minutes.  The doctors and nurses effectively handled the first group, but when the next two arrived, they were clearly overwhelmed, as planned. 

Exercise Communications Center

About twenty minutes into the exercise, the charge-nurse stepped up and declared she was taking charge of the ER.  The woman, later identified as Marianne, began directing nurses and providing doctors with information on each patient.  Within minutes, the chaos evolved into a deliberate and controlled process. Each patient received the necessary care quickly and efficiently.

Left: From Triage, "injured" patients are brought to Medical Treatment.

The doctor who treated me was professional and very confident.  He reviewed my symptoms card, asked how I felt and explained what he was going to do for me.  This included pain medication, an IV, and nitroglycerin for my heart. Nurses came in and simulated treatment, about ten minutes later.  My doctor returned shortly after that and asked how I felt.  I replied, “How should I feel?” and he said, “With what I prescribed, you should feel much better.”  I said all the chest pain was gone and the doctor said I was moving to pre-op, for observation. 

As a nurse rolled me into the pre-op area, the event concluded and I returned to the waiting area.  Once all of the victims arrived, the bus took us all back to the expo center, and we checked out.  For participating, each volunteer received a t-shirt and a thank you from the staff.  As I walked to my truck, several other people thanked me for helping with the exercise, too.

Looking back at the day, I realized how much planning, organization, and logistical effort went into the exercise.  Not only were agencies from the three counties represented, there were people from Homeland Security, FEMA, City of Austin, City of Round Rock, several sheriff and police departments and at least three military units.  On top of that, volunteer organizations like TEXSAR, CERT, Citizens on Patrol, etc. turned out to help with setup and teardown, operation of the various check-in/check-out stations and a myriad of other jobs.  I am sure I missed a few, but suffice it to say, this was a huge operation.

While I was not able to observe all aspects of the exercise, the portions I was directly involved with went very smoothly.  From my first contact with a SWAT officer, who kept me in the containment area, to the hospital staff in Kyle, everyone was professional and knowledgeable. At no time, did I doubt what I was being told or how I was treated.  My “wounds” were handled with appropriate urgency and the result was my survival.  That is particularly important to me!

Fire/Rescue crews prepare triage stretchers for the wounded.

From an overall perspective, I think the training and experience received by all agencies and personnel was outstanding.  The cooperation and interoperability of all responders was superb. I saw no arguing, no confusion, and best of all, no injuries during the exercise.  Couple this with the hands-on experience provided for all responders and there is no doubt in my mind this was an overwhelming success.  I look forward to participating next year.

Tony L. Ellis is a US Navy veteran who served aboard submarines and with the Department of Defense Police.  Currently working for Dell Inc., Tony is pursuing a PhD at Texas A&M University and focusing his research in Disaster Resilience in Rural Communities.

Photos courtesy of TEXSAR

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