New Mexico is now better prepared for a disaster, after more than 40 emergency responders completed a week of advanced training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Alabama. The CDP is operated by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency and is the only federally chartered Weapons of Mass Destruction training facility and fully equipped training hospital in the nation.

More than 30 University of New Mexico employees – from UNM Hospital and elsewhere on campus – joined nine workers from the state Department of Health for the weeklong training. Participants included emergency managers, administrators, nurses, emergency department techs, public information officers and even a Spanish language interpreter and chaplain. Trainers used a variety of didactic discussions and simulated activities to teach participants how to respond to emergencies ranging from mass casualty incidents to catastrophic natural disasters and terror attacks.

”There is no other training like this in the country that can better prepare you for that next disaster,” said Robert Perry, an emergency room manager at UNMH. “We are training today’s healthcare leaders and first responders for tomorrow’s disaster.”

UNMH emergency responders train at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Ala. Photo credit: Benjamin Crossley, FEMA

To facilitate the “real world” feel of the exercises, the CDP has converted the former Noble Army Hospital into an elite training facility, with an emergency room, patient care facility and emergency operations center. The training center also features a mock TV news studio and reporters who simulate media response to the situation. Local actors and remote controlled “smart” mannequins give emergency responders hands-on experience in dealing with various disaster and emergency situations involving chemical, biological, explosive, radiological and other hazardous materials. 

Lisa Dhanes, director of emergency services at UNMH who paricipated in the training exercise, described a scenario in which she had to deal with an actor portraying a mother whose baby had died in an explosion. “She was screaming, yelling, very upset," Dhanes said. "We had to comfort this grieving mother, but also had to tend to all other patients who were still coming in. The mannequins had simulated injuries that we would have to tend. They would have blood squirting out, so we not only had to decontaminate them, but also cover their wounds so they wouldn’t bleed out and die.”

Participants in CDP training gain critical skills and confidence to effectively respond to emergency scenarios such a chemical plant explosion, an outbreak of contagious diseases, a multiple injury accident or deadly terror attack. Nurses and hazmat responders donned personal protective equipment and set up a decontamination tent outside the training facility’s emergency room to respond to patients who had been “exposed” to a chemical release and disease outbreak. 

UNM emergency responders train in the Joint Information Center where personnel with public information responsibilities perform critical emergency information functions, crisis communications and public affairs functions. Photo credit: Benjamin Crossley, FEMA

“When we went into the COBRA lanes where we were dealing with chemical and biological agents, very deadly stuff, we have on a military style gas mask and a sealed suit to protect our skin and breathing,” said Mario Mendez, an emergency room technician.

“It can cause some anxiety. But you feel so safe with your instructors by then, that you really trust them,” emergency room technician Amanda Gallagher added. “The point is to get you over that anxiety so if the situation did happen you would feel confortable and confident with the equipment.”

Training at the CDP campus is federally funded and at no cost to the state, local, university or hospital organizations where the emergency responders work.

“FEMA knows that all responses start at the local level, so they want the local first responders and emergency personnel to be trained properly,” Perry said. “The state of New Mexico is very prepared to respond to any emergency that may happen, especially after this training.”

FEMA is planning another emergency training event at the CDP next year that is expected to draw about 170 participants from New Mexico.

Preparing for the worst (video)