An ongoing statewide emergency simulation held on university grounds reached its midpoint Thursday, as 146 staffers prepared a hypothetical evacuation procedure for thousands of refugees in Lane Stadium.
Six agencies are involved in the “state managed shelter exercise,” WHICH is testing plans that would shelter humans and companion animals in response to a hurricane affecting coastal Virginia.
Thursday’s drill featured about 150 people — 90 of whom were directly involved, whereas another 60 served either as observers or those controlling the exercises.
Although the preparations began at 9 a.m., during the afternoon segment most activity was focused on a real-time simulation of a planning process around accommodating the hurricane evacuees, according to university spokesman Larry Hincker, mostly within the press box and surrounding areas of Lane Stadium.
“Today is really a sort of command-and-control operation to see if it all works from the top,” said Michael Kiser, university spokesman, “and tomorrow is the closest thing you’re going to see in terms of actual intake of evacuees.”
“The reason that it’s here (for the first time) is because this is a designated shelter for people with companion animals, cats and dogs mainly, because we have the facilities to handle them,” he said.
Hampton Hart, the director of training and exercises at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said drills such as these are highly important in order for the state to ensure maximum efficiency in a real-world scenario.
“When we respond out on Interstate 81, you just can’t stop the clock and say, ‘Let’s back up and do it again,’” Hart said. “But in an exercise, you can do that. You can look at your processes, you can stop it and say, ‘You know what? Is there a different way to do that?’”
The maximum number of people affected in this exercise was set at 2,500, but the state might throw some twists into it to test the agencies’ responsiveness to changes in on-the-ground conditions, according to Hart.
“They’ve written their plan, they believe they’re going to execute it this way,” Hart said, “but we may try to put a little wrinkle in them.”
Possible wrinkles include shifting the number of evacuees — within the 2,500 limit — and increasing the percentage of children less than 10 years old or those needing special medical attention. The default numbers set the pet count at nearly 700 and the general population at 2,100, with 140 with special needs.
“Now, let’s say it goes up to 200. Well, you then must be able to segregate those patients, make sure you can identify their needs, coordinating with all the local hospitals,” Hart said.
The final day of the simulated emergency drill is Friday and transitions from the command-post-style functional exercise to one that includes handling actual people and animals playing the roles of evacuees being admitted by the agencies.
“Tomorrow is what we’ll call the ‘boots on the ground,’ where we’ll actually have ... a representative group of individuals that will present themselves and they will actually go through the intake process,” Hart said, “and so we’ll actually work through the mechanics.”
About 25 dogs and cats — some “volunteered” by their caretakers in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine — will accompany volunteers from the general student population as well as from Tech’s Corps of Cadets.
Since 2005, Virginia agencies have held more than 160 simulations of this type, varying in size and complexity. Hart said drills allow the agencies to maintain a level of proficiency and readiness to counter decay through inevitable employee turnover.
“You’re always trying to maintain a fit level of proficiency, so exercises give us a great opportunity to train, to learn, to experiment in a low threat, low-cost environment,” he said.