This is part of a series of interviews with local health department staff who will present at the 2016 Preparedness Summit. Lisa Vajgrt-Smith, Medical Reserve Corps Coordinator, Contra Costa Medical Reserve Corps, previews her session, “Strategic Planning and Training for Deploying Capable Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) teams: Our Valley Fire Response.” At this session, Lisa will be joined by Steve Huck, EMS Emergency Manager for Contra Costa County.
Q: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us about your learning session at the 2016 Preparedness Summit. Can you give a brief overview of what your session will cover?
Contra Costa County’s Emergency Manager Steve Huck and I are designing the session to talk about what we’ve done with our MRC unit that led to us being able to participate in the Valley Fire response. We’ll talk about some of the different training activities we do, how we use our community events as a training opportunity for deployments, and different strategic planning activities we’ve done to make our unit more successful and reliable. Lastly we’ll focus on the Valley Fire response. Our MRC unit deployed a team to both Calistoga and Middletown, California to help fire evacuees and establish medical operations in both areas. The session will tie-in how our prior trainings helped us successfully complete this deployment. We were actually the first unit to respond to an emergency event in California in several years.
Q: Who were the critical participants and partners involved in this coordinated response (other than emergency management, public health, and the MRC)?
The largest number of evacuees were from Lake County to Napa County, and both of their health departments were involved, as well as their fire and law enforcement entities. The American Red Cross and the California Conservation Corps were other groups there. We worked with the Function Assessment Service Team (FAST) teams that were deployed from different areas and some of the mental health resources. A lot of the teams were very hodgepodge and anyone who was available from different county departments helped out. When we were in Middletown, we had meetings with the Tribal Council so we could use their facilities for our operations, along with the Red Cross. In all, five other MRC units participated, including a veterinarian MRC unit that led a huge response with displaced animals.
Q: Can you elaborate on how the MRC worked with these organizations to coordinate the response?
The largest part of our deployment was spent working at a medical clinic established in the evacuee area at the Calistoga Fairgrounds. Once Napa County set up their emergency operations, our volunteers were folded into the medical health branch plans. Steve Huck and I coordinated with the medical health branch chief often. We would represent the MRC at the briefings and relay all news to our volunteers. The entire deployment ran mostly like you would imagine any emergency operation to run. We were asked through a mutual aid request, and were the first unit up to participate. Once the operations moved to Middletown, the operation center asked us to establish the medical operations there as evacuees began returning home. After we established the medical operation center, the Marin County MRC came up to provide relief. Then we oriented Santa Cruz MRC to operations so they could finish out operations there t. It was all coordinated through their public health officer, who was acting as the medical health branch chief.
Q: What challenges did the MRC face in regards to the coordination and response of the Valley Fire Response?
One challenge we faced was that the response didn’t take place in our county. We had to figure out transportation and potential housing and sleeping arrangements for our volunteers. Some of the evacuees weren’t very happy when we came in right away, so we had to try and separate ourselves from that and continue to foster our partnership with the Red Cross so we could get everything done as a group instead of as separate entities. Continuing to coordinate staffing for two weeks was always a challenge because we’re not a very big unit. I was pleasantly surprised at how much our volunteers stepped up to help and were willing to come back multiple times and do multiple shifts.
Q: What lessons did the local health department and the MRC learn during the coordination of the response?
Since it wasn’t our county, my emergency manager and I kept looking at it from the perspective of if this had happened in our county. Obviously we’ve been in a drought for five years, so fire season is always a concern to every county. The evacuees in the Valley Fire response were staying in tents, which gave us the experience of working with an encampment rather than a physical shelter. We also noticed some gaps in the response that we hope to be able to fix if we need to mimic the operations in our county.
The MRC volunteers realized that its likely we’ll deploy out of county in the future, because the affected county will have trouble responding. A lot of our volunteers also realized they had more value in a response than they thought. One of our volunteers is a pediatric oncology nurse who thought she’d never have any role during an emergency response, but she also helps run a clinic so she was instrumental in making sure the clinic operations continued to flow during staff changeovers. It was great for our volunteers to realize that even the little stuff had a huge impact. A lot of the evacuees just wanted to talk to someone and because of our presence they felt comfortable opening up to us. Our volunteers agreed that just being a listening ear was the most rewarding part of the response.
Another great lesson learned involved working with the FAST teams to identity people staying in the encampment who had access needs. We were able to check on these people throughout the night and assist them with getting to the bathroom or providing any necessary medical care.
Q: For those who attend your session, what do you want them to learn from your presentation?
I want attendees and other MRC volunteers to see that all our trainings really do amount to something. We want to present our response in a way that will get other local health departments and MRC units to think outside of the box to build a unit that works best for your community. I think we do some things that aren’t totally conventional, but they totally work for our unit. I also want people to learn from how we responded to the fire. It might not be a fire, but we always use that all hazards approach so our lessons learned will probably be lessons learned for other public health and county officials, not just MRC volunteers and coordinators.
Q: What are you looking forward to most about this year’s Preparedness Summit?
I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the people I met at last year’s Summit and continuing to network with the other MRC coordinators and public health responders.