It was a cool and not rainy (yes!) Saturday morning, and I could feel the excitement in the air as I walked up to the group of classmates who were milling around, waiting for things to get rolling. I signed in with the instructors and waited to get rolling. It didn’t take long.
We had selected an Incident Commander (our “IC” – do you remember ICS from Day 2?) in our last class session, and she was ready to go. After we arrived for the exercise, we all chose teams (search, rescue, medical, runners, etc.) and were ready to go. One of the instructors told us “We just had an earthquake”, and the drill was on!
And then things really slowed down. Me and another guy were tasked with examining the outside of the building that we were using for our scenario, and that took a few minutes. We saw nothing significant. Apparently the instructors didn’t think it was important to heighten the realism by starting a couple fires, taking a sledgehammer to the gas line, or breaking out the windows. Oh well – maybe when the read this article they’ll do that for the next class. (And the gas company could to their own “fix the vandalized gas line” drill at the same time :-)).
After that, we knew that the building appeared to be structurally safe on the outside, and other teams of searchers made their way inside. And the slowness continued. Since I was in and out and helping search and doing other chores, I obviously didn’t see everything that was going on, and certainly wasn’t able to view things from the IC’s or instructors’ perspective, but I didn’t need to see everything to realize a few things as the scenario progressed:
- Injured people had to wait a long time to get treatment, even when injuries were life-threatening.
- People who could have lived “died” instead because we took too long to get to them.
- It was difficult to maintain communications to and from the IC, even when using runners (and since our class was pretty big, it was even harder!)
- Orders changed midstream, either because of rumors spread when connecting with other search or rescue teams, and in many cases because people on teams simply decided to do something else after they got started doing one thing. It turned out to be very easy to get distracted by crying victims, a fire or chemical spill (or in our case, signs that indicated these situations), and many other things.
This was what they call a “dynamic” environment, not because the quake was still happening or because pieces of the building were still falling down, but because we had introduced a whole new batch of humans to the overall equation, and all of us rescuers kept changing things.
The IC had a tough job! Not only did she only have runners for communication, she needed to keep track of who was where, whether all her teams were safe, and had to do her best as victims kept dying off.
I’m not pointing this stuff to point blame to anyone — our class did a great job! But instead I want to point out that in an environment like this, it will be confusing, and that confusion could potentially result in additional pain and suffering. Such is the nature of a natural disaster. Now you won’t be surprised. (I know – if you’re reading this type of article in the first place, such a statement is unlikely to be a surprise!)
Here’s another interesting thing I noticed. I died! That’s right. I broke one of the simple rules: “Never get separated from your buddy”. Easy, right? Not in this case. We were a three-person team, and we had stopped to rescue an injured girl. After a little hemming and hawing, I decided that I could easily carry her in my arms, downstairs to safety and treatment. We talked about what the other two should do. I looked away for a moment, saying something about us needing to stay together, and before I knew it, they were off on their own. I headed toward safety anyhow. (At that point, I think the only alternative that would have kept me from breaking the rules would have been to drop the victim and catch up with them. That seemed silly, so I didn’t. My mistake. An observer looked at me and said “You have no buddy – you just died.” The fact that this observer also seemed to be encouraging us to split up right before my two buddies took off didn’t help anything. Maybe he was playing devil’s advocate – I’m not sure. And it doesn’t matter. The rule was simple, I broke it, and I was dead. (It was only a 15-minute “time-out” and then I got to play some more, but the lesson was still quite clear.)
What does this prove? Even in this contrived situation, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize that in the midst of bad things, more bad things can continue to happen! Did you read about search and rescue from Day 7? Can you imagine listening to someone crying for help inside a collapsed building, but knowing that if you went in you could possibly cause further collapse (injuring your victim further or killing him/her) or make matters even worse by injuring or killing yourself? This was the type of situation our instructors were trying to avoid. If you have your buddy with you, you’re likely to live longer when your environment is in turmoil. Elite military units do it for the same reason, and we should too. Have you ever heard of a Ranger Buddy? Go to Army Ranger School, and you’ll learn about it (or just keep reading this article – much easier). At Ranger school, you and your buddy are inseparable, and watch each other’s backs. And if you do get separated somehow, you can expect at leat lots of pushups and some yelling. (No, I was not a Ranger, but I was in the Army, and have this on good authority :-).)
A situation like this disaster scenario is HARD to deal with. The class did a great job, especially for our first drill. The biggest lesson I learned is that in order to not make a worse disaster of an existing disaster, I and the rest of my CERT team will need practice!
The good news is that we have another drill coming up early next year, and I’m looking forward to correcting some of my own mistakes and hopefully adding value to the rest of the group.
Let me sum up this experience (at least for now – I’ll probably write about upcoming drills too) by saying this:
- Taking a CERT class is good, but it’s only a very basic preparation for a disaster.
- Participating in additional drills will help cement your training (if I wrote clearly, this is obvious to you already). If you don’t exercise these muscles, they’ll waste away. Don’t let all that time you invested in training go to waste!
- If you haven’t taken a CERT course, do it. It won’t hurt. It will help.
- Get out there an do something!
Thanks for reading,