Urban Shield: A Volunteer’s Perspective
When I heard an Urban Shield (Urban Shield, 2012) event was being held in Austin, I couldn’t wait to volunteer. As a researcher in the field of disaster resilience in rural communities (DRRC), I looked forward to seeing the disaster unfold, in real-life. I signed up online and reviewed all the information I could find on the project. My plan was to be as prepared as possible, so I knew what to expect, and be the best “victim” I could be.
Over the next few weeks, I received updates and information from the Texas Search and Rescue (TEXSAR) organizers on where to be and when to arrive. Some general information was provided on how to dress and the type of events to expect. Of course, details were kept to a minimum to preclude responders preparing in advance and changing how they performed during the event.
On the day of the event, I arrived at 6:00 AM. As I soon found out, I was about three hours early, but that was okay with me. I introduced myself and took a seat where I could observe as much as possible. There were at least three different military-style uniforms present. I also saw several other agencies represented, including Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Texas Search and Rescue (TEXSAR), Austin Police Department (APD), as well as several emergency services and volunteer groups.
All around me, I could see activity. Small groups discussed their assignments, while others sorted paperwork or attended to equipment. There were people setting up computers to check in volunteers, while medical and police personnel staged equipment. Meetings and last-minute briefings were held by various groups. I was allowed to sit in and was amazed at the time that had been devoted to planning and execution of the exercise. The more I heard, the more excited I became about what was going to happen. In one meeting, I realized several different events had been going on around the county, for several days.
For instance, one scenario involved people trapped in a collapsed building. Various fire departments responded and worked together to get the people out safely. Another was a local sniper attack that required a SWAT team response. These are just a couple of the exercises that went on around the county, leading up to today’s grand finale.
During the course of the morning, I found out I was going to be the victim of a chemical bomb attack today. With that bit of information, my mind was racing. Will I be injured by the bomb? What kind of chemical am I going to be exposed to? How should I play my part to make it as realistic as possible? Well, I soon found out the answer to these questions and more.
About this time, people of all ages began arriving. There were individuals, families and at one point, I saw a pregnant woman and a blind man being signed in. I don’t think anyone could have asked for a more diverse group of victims. Later, I found out over 640 people had come to help with the exercise.
Once the majority of volunteers arrived, we were ushered into the bleachers and briefed by several of the people in charge. Each volunteer received a card indicating his or her assigned group. Some were bomb blast casualties, chemical agent sufferers, while others were dazed and confused. Details on how to behave and which injuries to simulate were on the cards. As volunteers read their symptoms, the conversations turned to how they should act or what they would say. The excitement was evident and I began to look forward to seeing how others would portray their injuries, as much as acting out my own.
I was a chemical agent victim, suffering from very low blood pressure, nausea, headaches, and difficulty staying conscious (See appendix 1 for copy of my card). Now that I had my role, I was able to think about how to perform for the responders. I went over my symptoms and considered what I would do and say to the fire, police, military, or medical personnel I came in contact with. I wanted to make it as realistic as I could so the responders, and support personnel, got the most out of the experience.
From my vantage point, I could see people moving to have makeup and fake injuries (moulage) applied to provide visual effect for responders. Some people had simulated burns put on, while others had more serious injuries. One young woman’s eye injury was so well-done, she became a favorite “photo opportunity” for volunteers and responders alike. Other injuries included protruding bones, shrapnel, and lost limbs. The detail on each injury was superb. If a person didn’t know the injuries were simulated, it is very likely they would have called 911. Kudos to all who applied the makeup to the victims.
Since my symptoms were low blood pressure and heart problems etc., I didn’t need a great deal of makeup. I was given a greyish face and a few scratches and bruises. While I didn’t have a lot of physical injury, I was ready to give a great performance. This grey-faced cardiac patient, barely hanging onto life, was ready to go.
About 2 PM, we were moved to the staging area and given last minute instructions. While we waited, people took photos of each other, continued to chat about how they were going to act when the disaster happened and what to expect. The general mood was excitement and anticipation. I, for one, was ready to go. I had my plan and was ready to do my best to make the event a success. A few minutes later, a huge “flash-bang” was set off to simulate the bomb, and we were told to run outside and “make it real.” The show had begun!
Everyone evacuated the building and ended up in a small grassy area, near the parking lots. There were event coordinators walking around telling everyone which way to go and providing general information on how to “perform.” I started my act by grabbing my chest, yelling for help, and stumbling around. While I continued my performance, I watched how other people were acting out their injuries.
Some were pretending to vomit, wander aimlessly, crying or just holding a collapsed friend. One woman walked by, as if in a daze, moaning and asking if anyone had seen her husband. Three other young men huddled together trying to comfort each other. One had lost a leg, the second had a lot of burns, and the other couldn’t seem to stand or walk. In another group, a man and woman were running away and trying to leave the area. That is when I realized we were surrounded.
Military and police had formed a circle around everyone and were not letting anyone out of the grassy area. Any person trying to leave was directed back into the group and told to stay there. As people cried out for help, we were told medical personnel would be arriving soon. About that time, a helicopter began to fly overhead. People waved, but the pilot kept flying in circles and didn’t descend. Now the fire engines, ladder trucks and a couple ambulances began to show up. This was at least 20 minutes into the disaster and people were starting to panic and move toward the responders. Again, military and police worked to keep people back.
A few people finally broke through the line and ran to get help. At least one was airlifted by life flight and others were transported in ambulances. I could only assume they were headed to a hospital somewhere, but had no way to tell. The fire department was setting up a ladder truck and hose to act as a shower. Once the hose was in place, some of the people were herded like cattle under the water. After being drenched, the group was moved to another staging area. I assume they were being checked for further medical needs.
While all of the activity around the trucks was going on, people were falling down around me and pretending to die or to have their symptoms worsen. I wandered around the area grabbing onto posts, trashcans or other people, while asking for help. I complained of difficulty breathing, upset stomach and being very sleepy. Of course, no one was interested in me as they all had problems of their own. That is when I decided to approach the barrier and see if I could get help from one of the police officers.
As I walked toward a young SWAT officer, he told me to stay back. I asked for help and stumbled as I moved forward. When I finally reached the officer, I grabbed onto his arm and said I needed help. I could not breathe and my chest hurt. The officer said he could not help me and medical personnel were coming. I said I could not wait and needed to leave. He placed me in an arm-bar, and escorted me to the grassy area. Once there, he said to stay put and wait for EMS to get to me.
About this time, a news crew came up and began to interview people. They started with the three young men I discussed earlier, then moved on to some of the other groups around me (Guess my performance didn’t make the cut). As I moved around the other victims, I could see the event evaluators talking to people in the area. They were checking the cards, with our injuries, and directing people to different areas. When my turn came, I was told to report to a building nearby.
I walked over to the building and was greeted by a man playing the role of a triage doctor. He said I required hospital care and to get on the bus parked outside. I joined about 20 other people already on the bus and once the bus was full, we left the event area and headed to a hospital. On the way, we were told it was the new Seton facility, in Kyle, Texas. About 30 minutes later, we arrived and were greeted by hospital staff.
A young woman explained our roles and asked for questions. Basically, we would all be staged outside the emergency room (ER). From there, several groups would enter at intervals to simulate “waves” of ambulances arriving with casualties. The goal was to overload the emergency room staff so they could see how a real disaster might play out. Once seen by the staff, we were to play our roles and try to demonstrate the appropriate symptoms and responses to medication etc.
I was in the second group and when I arrived, I was met by a male nurse. He asked my name and told me to sit down so he could take my vitals. Instead, I collapsed and clutched my chest. The nurse immediately moved to support me and called for a gurney. After getting me on the bed, I was wheeled to the ER. Another nurse came in and asked about my symptoms, so I showed her my card. She made some quick notes and called for a doctor.
Although there were curtains on three sides, I had a pretty good view of what was going on around me. I watched as nurses scurried to get patients logged in and triaged. I heard someone yell, “I need a doctor. Amputee!” At the same time, I watched a couple other people being moved from beds to wheelchairs. There was a lot of activity and everyone seemed to be pretty calm at this point. Then the next wave of injured people arrived and it all hit the fan.
With no more bed-space, patients were lined up along the counter and walls. More nurses were appearing and at least two more doctors came in. Although the room appeared to be chaotic, the staff remained focused and did their jobs. Doctors asked which patients needed to be seen, new nurses were taking directions from those already there, but no one seemed to be in charge.
About this time, I saw something I had not seen since my Navy days. One person stepped up and, although not in the exact words, declared she was in charge. This is the type of leadership needed to handle such situations and the woman excelled. I later found out she was the charge nurse, Marianne. She called out to everyone in the area, “We need to get organized. Everyone listen up!” She proceeded to assign specific jobs to each nurse, provided patient information to the doctors, and outlined a plan to take care of all the injured people.
As the rest of the ER came to order, a doctor entered to treat me. He asked how I felt and I replied by showing my symptom card and complaining about chest pain etc. The doctor reviewed the card, commented that he understood my injuries and told me what he would do if this were real. He ordered some tests, an IV, nitroglycerin, and pain killers for me. He said a nurse would be in to administer the medications and to check on me soon, then left the room.
A few minutes later, two nurses came in to take vitals, administer medications and to start the IV. About that time, I heard someone say one of the patients had died due to his injuries. Another patient was moved passed my bed and I could see bandages on her face. It looked like the staff was catching up with the influx of patients now. The doctor returned and asked how I felt. I asked if I should feel better and he smiled saying, “With what I gave you yes, you should feel real good.” Going along with that, I told him I could breathe easier now and my stomach was not upset anymore. The doctor said he was going to send me to Pre-OP for further evaluation, but I would be okay.
As I waited, I could hear the staff talking and generally, things seemed to be calming down. Patients had all been seen by doctors and those needing further attention were being admitted. About that time, the original male nurse came to get me. He moved me out of the ER and up to the floor where I was to be admitted. The nurses there were very nice and as I was being checked into the room, we got word the event was completed, so I walked down to the ER to wait for instructions.
I joined the group and we were escorted back to the waiting room. Sandwiches and sodas were provided for us there. The woman who had greeted us came in a few minutes later and thanked us for our participation. We loaded onto the bus and returned to the event site, for checkout. Once there, it was a quick trip through the line to check out and get our t-shirt, as we were the last to return and most of the volunteers had already gone home.
As I think back over the event, many of the people I met come to mind. From the first TEXSAR representative I saw when I arrived, to the last soldier I said “good job” to in the parking lot. Everyone was professional and knew their jobs. The briefings and information provided to me was timely and accurate. The progression from one point to another, during the preparation, was very organized and efficient. At no point can I say I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to be. That in itself is a huge thing, when you are dealing with over 600 volunteers.
When I was wandering around, “injured” on the grassy area, I thought the ambulance personnel had failed to show up, but in hindsight, I think we experienced what would really happen. Quarantining of the injured to prevent the spread of whatever they were exposed to, delays in response because of the size of the disaster, media coverage, responders becoming overwhelmed at the scene and having to contend with aggressive or uncooperative victims. The time delays seemed very long then, but I was later informed only 30 minutes had passed. Again, this was a very realistic simulation of response to a disaster of this magnitude.
In addition to the orchestration of the disaster itself, I cannot help but realize the time and effort that must have gone into planning it. Gathering personnel from over 25 city, county, state, federal agencies, and military organizations could not have been an easy task. Add the large number of volunteer organizations and I cannot imagine the number of hours spent. Despite such obstacles, from my perspective, the event was a huge success.
I learned a great deal from my participation and hope to do it again next year. As a researcher, first-hand experience is one of the best ways to learn. From a citizen perspective, I helped responders, military, and other professionals practice their skills and abilities. Now, should a real disaster occur, those coming to help have had the opportunity to see what could really happen. From my perspective, this can only help them understand what to expect and how to respond. Ultimately, I think this type of training will save lives.
I would strongly encourage everyone to volunteer when Urban Shield comes to your area. Not only will you be helping those who come to save your life, but the experience is one you will remember for a long time. Volunteer and be part of the team!
By Tony L. Ellis
US Navy Veteran