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Shelter needs at heart of new full scale exercise

Michael Talamaivao & Trixy Petaia both are actors portraying flood victims who need shelter during an exercise in Puyallup.

Shelter needs at heart of new full scale exercise

A woman, who only speaks Korean, walks into a shelter crafted out of the gymnasium at the Puyallup Nazarene Church. Her home has been flooded and she needs some place to go – but no one speaks her language and it’ll be at least an hour before an interpreter can arrive.

The shelter registration team communicates with her using hand gestures and a chart with symbols and pictures. In a few minutes, she’s able to let them know she has family in her car outside and they need food.

This didn’t really happen, but it could have. She was one of many “actors;” however, the shelter registration team was real. The Washington Emergency Management Division (EMD) teamed up with the city of Puyallup and Pierce County to conduct a full-scale exercise on Nov. 7. The exercise tested what it would take to host a shelter following a major disaster. The exercise’s major emphasis was how to help people who speak different languages or have access/functional needs – such as using a wheelchair or needing a sign language interpreter.

Pictures and charts help shelter staff communicate to people who don't speak English until interpreters can arrive.

The city of Puyallup had the responsibility of setting up the shelter and registering shelter guests. Pierce County activated its Functional Assessment Service Team (FAST), which assists shelter guests with their unmet needs.

Courtney Rose, the exercise program manager for EMD, says this exercise focused on flooding because this is a realistic scenario for this time of the year, but the event could easily be a substitute for the aftermath of an earthquake or other major event.

“This exercise had an immense amount of support from multiple agencies to the tune of 110 participants – some who are our actors and some who, legitimately, are here to get experience and practice,” Rose noted.

Rose mentioned that Kristin Hofmann, the city of Puyallup’s Emergency Manager, and Serina McWha, Pierce County Emergency Management Access and Functional Needs Coordinator, have been working in partnership with EMD to design this full-scale exercise since May.

Hofmann notes this is the first time in recent memory that a full-scale shelter exercise had been done in Puyallup.

“Exercises are crucial to test our plans, policies and procedures,” Hofmann said. “We have to be prepared in the event of an emergency, and by training and exercising we can see where we are ready to respond and discover areas where we need to improve. Ultimately, our goal is to increase our ability to provide the necessary services to Puyallup residents during emergencies or disasters.”

Peggy LovellFord portrays a shelter attendee with a dog during the exercise.

Peggy LovellFord works for Pierce County, but was an actor portraying a woman with a dog. She had a stuffed animal and said she wasn’t going anywhere unless her dog was coming with her.
“The dog stays with me,” she said to a front desk helper, who tried to figure her out while a team assembled a kennel nearby.

Many actors came through the registration with animals; both pets and service animals. “That’s a real scenario,” Rose said. “When shelters stand up, they’ll need to figure out where to locate pets, so they are near their owners. Otherwise, people who need our help aren’t going to come to us.”

Rose applauds the efforts being made in Pierce County and hopes other counties will consider this kind of training in the future.

Wanda Tsosie, with Washington Emergency Management Division, portrays a shelter attendee during the exercise.

Pierce County, the city of Puyallup and EMD relied on partners with expertise in mass care, such as the American Red Cross and local human service agencies that work with access and functional needs populations daily.

“It was important to include these experts to ensure that exercise objectives were met, or to identify gaps in the processes,” McWha said.

“We developed full profiles for our actors to provide context as they each went the registration process. This allows the sheltering team the ability to work through real-world possibilities in an exercise environment.” Rose added. “Our actors, many of them county employees, did an outstanding job of respectfully acting-out their roles.”

Rose applauds the efforts and coordination being made in the city of Puyallup and Pierce County and hopes other counties will consider this kind of training in the future. This is just one of the many efforts that our partners are working on as the state will lead the efforts for the next Cascadia Rising Exercise in 2022. The exercise will have a focus on recovery in the wake of a big 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami along the coast of Washington. A similar exercise was done in the summer of 2016, which emphasized the response.

“Recovery, including how shelters operate, will be a big aspect of our next Cascadia Rising Exercise,” Rose said.

Read The Puyallup Herald's account of this exercise.