When the Big One Hits: State CERT Practices for Mass Casualty Earthquake

Submitted by Brad King for Department of Retirement Systems

The building rocked side to side then partially collapsed. The sounds of the injured inside could be heard from the darkened doorway as the search and rescue teams entered.

Department of Retirement Systems DRS ERT Lead David Jennings
DRS ERT Lead David Jennings (center) coordinates the recent multi-agency disaster exercise along with DFI’s Guadalupe Vazquez and DRS’ Brian Castillo and Robert Arnsdorf. Photo courtesy: Department of Retirement Systems

Ok, yes, it was just a drill. But the objective of the drill was to practice interagency coordination for search and rescue and follow up medical assistance. With multiple agencies working together, the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) accomplished exactly that and more during the recent Interagency Mass Casualty Incident exercise at the Department of Retirement Systems’ warehouse facility on Lambskin Road in Tumwater.

So many state Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) folks from the various agencies wanted to come together to practice, two separate sessions were held: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The interagency teams ran the drill twice each session, simulating a mass casualty earthquake emergency response. CERT members entered the building and performed search and rescue for “injured” team members. Evacuated victims then had their medical issues addressed under tents set up outside the building.

“A major lesson from the military is that muscle memory helps us respond appropriately under pressure,” said DRS Emergency Response Team (ERT) Lead David Jennings. “And the best way to gain muscle memory is practice, practice, practice. CERT takes this lesson seriously and conducts monthly drills and briefings to keep our skill sets up. However, nothing is better than a full-fledged field exercise.”

Guadalupe Vazquez, the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) liaison on the exercise’s interagency planning committee, said one of the most valuable outcomes from the exercise was meeting and working with people from different agencies.

“When the big one hits, having experience with and trust in responders from other agencies means we can pool our resources to do the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Department of Retirement Systems Tumwater Fire Department Chief Scott LaVielle
Tumwater Fire Department Chief Scott LaVielle and DRS ERT member Danielle Findlay coordinate the treatment of “victims” during the recent multi-agency disaster exercise. Photo courtesy: Department of Retirement Systems

Kerry Swain, ERT Lead with the Department of Revenue (DOR), said these drills are important for many reasons. “They help us identify items or behaviors that need to change based on the reality of the exercise. For example, in this drill, we learned that the triage team needs to change their practices to better protect themselves and get all the victims stabilized faster. We also identified additional equipment we will need. These ‘cross agency’ drills help us build relationships and trust that we will need to work together in the event of a mass casualty incident.”

There was a great turnout for the exercise from multiple state agencies based in Tumwater:

  • Office of the Attorney General
  • Economic and Revenue Forecast
    Council
  • Department of Financial Institutions
  • Department of Social and Health Services
  • Department of Labor & Industries
  • Department of Retirement Systems
  • Department of Revenue
  • Social Security Administration

“The Tumwater Fire Department Chief (Scott LaVielle) and his Captain/Senior Medical Officer were on site with us almost the entire day,” David said. “That’s a testimony to how much value they see in our emergency response contributions.”
Chief LaVielle echoed this notion.
“After observing these CERT teams in action,” Chief LaVielle said, “I am even more convinced of the value of working with them. In a disaster situation having State Agency CERT teams helping respond is an invaluable force multiplier to help us find and stabilize trapped and injured individuals.”

Numerous observers were also present at the exercise:

  • Office of Financial Management’s Community Emergency Response Team Coordinator
  • Department of Health’s Emergency Response leadership
  • City of Tumwater’s Emergency Management Committee

“Overall, the exercise was a tremendous success,” Kerry said. “Everyone gave us high marks for the quality of this exercise. The CERT members did a wonderful job. They were focused, knowledgeable and great role models for others.”

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