Mock disaster staged in Woodbridge

WOODBRIDGE - Disasters can strike at any time. The nation's state of preparedness to deal with these catastrophic emergencies has been tested repeatedly in recent years, and it has proven woefully inadequate.

To address the flaws in emergency preparedness, communities throughout the nation have begun to reevaluate their resources in an effort to develop improved responses. Woodbridge put its readiness to the test on Feb 10.

To evaluate its disaster preparedness, Woodbridge held a mock disaster drill at the Center Building. The exercise, a collaborative effort between the South-Central Chapter of the American Red Cross and the town of Woodbridge, was designed to require the set-up of a shelter in the Center Gym.

Along with the Woodbridge departments of Human Services and Police, Woodbridge also had the help of its Community Emergency Response Team. The CERT team is composed of a group of volunteer citizens who have been trained in disaster relief procedures. These individuals have volunteered to be on call to help with emergency response when necessary.

Jeff Leiby, one of the coordinators from the police department, explained, "We're doing this to see what we have and what we need to improve on."

Steve Boddie, a member of the Red Cross chapter, said, "This promotes community awareness and gives them an opportunity to fix any potential problems that might arise."

In the case of a true disaster, the police will contact Mary Ellen LaRocca, the director of human services. After she is briefed about the nature of the emergency, LaRocca will determine the need for setting up a shelter.

Once that determination is made, the First Selectman, Ed Sheehy, will authorize the use of the center building as a shelter. From there, the Red Cross and CERT team will take over.

As the drill began on Feb 10, the Red Cross and the CERT team were already in the activated mode. CERT members gathered in the center gym at 9 a.m. to prepare the gym as an emergency shelter.

At the direction of Michelle Funaro, the director of emergency services for the Red Cross, the volunteers quickly began their tasks.

The CERT team readied cots and supplies. They also orchestrated a registration system to handle the incoming victims.

The Red Cross brought an emergency trailer that is completely equipped with needed supplies, including cots, toys, and books. In addition, Woodbridge has an emergency trailer with 100 emergency kits.

The kits include a cot, a blanket, a pillow and a supply of necessities such as toothpaste, etc. Ray Stewart, the assistant police chief, said, "These supplies all come in a bag."

Stewart also added that the town was fortunate to have a facility like the center. "The center has a generator, cooking facilities, and water. We're self-sustained."

A group of volunteer ham radio operators set up at the center and at the police station. These individuals came from all over the state to help with communications, which would be essential if there was a loss of telephone service.

As the CERT team finished its preparations, volunteer "victims" began wandering into the center.

These volunteers came from members of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, as well as friends and community members.

As these "displaced" persons gathered at the center, they were signed in and smoothly directed to appropriate areas by CERT members.

The "victims" were given some work to do too. Some of the shelter-seekers were sick or hurt.

Others spoke a foreign language or had a disability. Two young volunteers were asked to pose as troublemakers. They eagerly complied and quickly staged a scuffle. Another volunteer was assigned the role of a drunk.

These acts were staged to challenge the CERT volunteers and present them with some of the possible difficulties that might arise in a real disaster. Anne Davis, a member of the Orange CERT team who came to observe, said, "This is how you learn. It's great to see the members here are eager to learn."

A corner of the gym was set up for medical triage. This area was staffed by nurses, an emergency medical technician and other CERT members. Those victims with medical problems or injuries were cared for at that location.

Since part of offering shelter will involve feeding the people displaced by the disaster, the organizers arranged for food to be available for all participants. More than 20 area restaurants donated food for the exercise. All participants shared in the offerings during the drill.

At the close of the drill, more than three hours later, the CERT team began the cleanup process. Cots were folded and replaced; chairs were returned to storage.

After that was completed, the participants had a brief meeting to review the drill. According to Lenn Zonder, one of the CERT assistant team leaders, a more extensive meeting will be held in the near future to review the drill process and address any problems.

Paul Konwerski, another CERT assistant team leader, commended the participants, saying, "I think it went great. I'm impressed."

Funaro said of the drill, "It went very well, maybe even better than I expected. This is such a caring community. It says a lot about Woodbridge."

Sheehy said, "As a lay person observing, I was very impressed. Hopefully we're not going to have the need to open the shelter, but we'll be prepared."

LaRocca said, "The CERT team was instrumental in planning this drill."

Gene Marcucci, the chief of police, praised Sgt Brian McCarthy, who was instrumental in training the CERT team. Marcucci said of the CERT team, "It's an invaluable asset. Hopefully we'll never have to use them."