Office of Emergency Management, Red Cross conduct shelter training

About 25 central Kenai Peninsula residents expanded their knowledge of emergency response this week during a shelter training course at Soldotna High School.

Hosted Monday and Tuesday night by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management and the American Red Cross of Alaska, the eight-hour course prepares individuals and organizations alike for what it takes to open, maintain and close a shelter during an emergency.

Though some in the room had already taken some version of the class before, a variety of people eager to learn how to manage and be part of a shelter attended. Sgt. Ronny Simmons represented the Alaska State Troopers at the event and said he would be taking back information to other officers about what kind of things evacuees can expect at shelters during emergency situations.

“Obviously we’re the ones telling people they need to leave,” he said. “It would be nice to have an understanding of what they’re going to get once they get there, because we get a lot of pushback … and we can’t make them go. If somebody wants to die in their house, they can die in their house, that’s the reality. But it would be nice to tell them what good awaits them if they do leave.”

Also present for the class were members of the Community Emergency Response Team, the principal of Sterling Elementary School and local church representatives. Some expressed a wish to better know another potential avenue for volunteering during emergencies, while others said they hoped to get a better understanding of how to network with already established shelters to give donations and volunteers during times of need.

The course instructor, Dave Williams of the Red Cross in Anchorage, said the way the organization handles emergency shelters changed significantly after Hurricane Katrina. Previously, if people came to shelters who had needs high enough for a hospital or nursing home, that was where they generally were sent. Now, the Red Cross accepts evacuees across the board, he said. Practices regarding emergency shelters are constantly evolving, Williams said.

Each course participant got a handbook co-authored by the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency with checklists for what to do when starting up an emergency shelter.

“They need to have basically an understanding of what they’re walking into, and be able to basically identify what role they’re going to play,” Williams said.

Often, part of running a shelter becomes handling meals and teams of people using the space as an information center. Sometimes a shelter might not have many occupants overnight, but will have plenty of people returning for food or will be the site people can come for updates, said Dan Nelson, program coordinator for the borough’s Office of Emergency Management. Nelson taught the course with Williams, and said the borough is the entity that makes the call of whether to open a shelter.

“One of the interesting things with (the) Funny River Fire in 2014, Redoubt Elementary I think at its peak had 11 residents,” Nelson said. “But we held our media briefings there, you know, our meetings for the residents … so what we’ve seen down here is one of the things they become is information centers.”

The Red Cross is working to reorganize on the Kenai Peninsula to have a stronger presence, Williams said. When a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the area in late January, Red Cross personnel had to come from the Mat-Su Valley. Nelson said he had worked to get a shelter set up and running at the Alaska Army National Guard Armory in Kenai until the Red Cross got there.

Addressing that gap period between an emergency and help from the Red Cross arriving has been a major focus of past instruction similar to this course, Nelson said.

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