Firefighters evacuate an "injured" woman from a "collapsed" hotel as part of a full-scale disaster exercise at Fort Belvoir.
Simulated earthquake tests Belvoir readiness
A successful response to an unexpected disaster requires prompt action, continuous communication among all agencies and a familiarity with local emergency procedures. Those notions were put to the test on Fort Belvoir the morning of June 8, when a simulated magnitude 6.8 earthquake rocked the installation.
In the exercise, damage was widespread: a four-story hotel partly collapsed; eight homes were destroyed with 30 more suffering significant damage; one of the installation’s two water towers collapsed, and several gas lines ruptured. Emergency responders were spread thin trying to assess damage and treat and transport casualties.
Fort Belvoir’s fire training tower at Davison Army Airfield was the site of the “hotel” collapse. As the fire engines rolled up, six actors had varying injuries, and there were a couple of simulated fatalities in the rubble. Firefighters had to mark off and maneuver around a downed power line while moving the injured a safe distance from the unstable structure.
All of this was being closely monitored by Kelly Burke, the chief of the evaluation team that had assembled from across the country to observe the full-scale exercise.
“We’re evaluating performance,” Burke told InsideNoVa after the firefighters had triaged the wounded and called for simulated transport of the injured. “We want to see if they have been using a training management plan in order to validate that training by performing the actual tasks in a real-world exercise.”
She noted that each of the six injured had different levels of severity. “We wanted to see if each of the injured was correctly categorized by severity of injury, make sure they got the right treatment, and then make sure that they were transported by priority.”
Meanwhile, the Emergency Operations Center at garrison headquarters was packed with representatives of every department, monitoring information on computer screens. The room was filled with the murmur of people sharing updates with one another and over the phone, while observers quietly took notes.
At the top of each hour, team leaders updated Col. Joshua SeGraves, the garrison commander. SeGraves peppered the leaders with follow-up questions to better understand how the new information would affect operations for the next several days.
The Army Community Services team quickly shifted to become an Emergency Family Assistance Center, as actors streamed in with tales of home destruction and damage, needing immediate and longer-term shelter.
Kelly Toro, one of the team members assisting, was a volunteer who had driven from the Bronx, N.Y., to help out with the exercise. Toro’s son was killed in Iraq in 2007. She said so much responsibility falls on so few Americans that she felt compelled to help Fort Belvoir.
“I do this emergency family assistance training at Fort Hamilton, in the Bronx, so they asked me to come down and help,” Toro said. “I just love giving back when it comes to the military. It’s important, because less than 1% raise their right hand to protect and serve.”
Throughout the daylong exercise, there were numerous times when disaster role-play had to pause for real life, as when fire engines were dispatched to answer calls and when the installation’s safety officer cautioned department heads that the heat and humidity posed a real danger to those working and responding outside.
After an afternoon news conference with simulated reporters peppering him with questions, SeGraves told his team leaders he was impressed with the response. He stressed that even in times of chaos and crisis, “it’s important that you do your best, do what’s right, and treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
He added that it was the first time in more than two years that this large of a group had been assembled.
“The importance of this full-scale exercise cannot be overstated,” SeGraves noted. “This… provided an opportunity and essential step for us to rebuild our readiness and cohesion as an operational garrison team."