August 15, 2014
It is a stormy morning in the northern Piedmont [of North Carolina]. A commuter aircraft is having trouble reaching the Raleigh-Durham International airport. The plane crash-lands in Kerr Lake Reservoir, and 25 passengers and crew members must be found and pulled from the lake.
This was the day-long preparedness exercise that faced 245 emergency first-responders who came to practice their rescue skills at Vance County’s Henderson Point State Park on August 8. Bill Gentry, MPA, director of the Community Preparedness and Disaster Management (CPDM) program at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, facilitated and evaluated the exercise.
Participants included first-responders from Vance County agencies and North Carolina government, as well as federal responders from the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Gentry, who received UNC’s Ned Brooks Award for Public Service earlier this year, has collaborated with Vance County over the last five months to prepare for the exercise, which employed four helicopters, 16 boats and North Carolina’s new mobile command post. The command post is a quick-response emergency management, communications and scene support vehicle that can be utilized for search-and-rescue operations, major fires, chemical spills, storm-ravaged areas, major crimes and tactical situations.
“These full-scale exercises are an excellent way for responders to use their training under real conditions, in real time,” Gentry said. “It was a great day for Vance County, and I enjoyed working with several alumni of the Gillings School’s CPDM program, as well.”
Among those CPDM alumni were Brian Short (2005), director of emergency operations in Vance County; Steve Powers (2005), N.C. emergency management branch manager for central North Carolina; and Jim Groves (2005), who assisted Gentry with exercise evaluation.
The exercise allowed participants to practice communication and coordination between agencies, securing the scene, and providing public health and medical services. ‘Victims’ were rescued from the water, channeled through medical triage, and then re-deposited in the water so that rescuers could have multiple opportunities for search and rescue operations from the water and the air.
“Working with boats is a common event for this type of exercise,” Gentry said, “but working with three helicopters was quite a challenge. Literally and figuratively, there are a lot of moving parts to keep up with!”
The N.C. National Guard provided two helicopters, and the N.C. Highway Patrol provided another. Both the National Guard and Highway Patrol have trained, volunteer technicians who work with them to conduct search-and-rescue missions in the state.
Responders seemed to agree that the five hours out on the lake were challenging, but realistic.
“That’s why we conduct exercises such as these,” Short says, “so that our responders can build experiential knowledge. Hopefully, they won’t ever need to use it, but if they are called to the lake for this type of emergency, they will be prepared.”
(Left to right) Gentry discusses strategy with Jim Groves, CPDM alumnus and exercise evaluator; briefs the National Guard helicopter crew; and offers instruction to the exercise participants. North Carolina’s new mobile command post is seen in the background of the first photograph.
About the School and the CPDM certificate
With a mission to improve public health, promote individual well-being and eliminate health disparities across North Carolina and around the world, the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health supports bridging the gap between academic research and practical public health solutions. By bringing together academic and practice communities, the School helps to inform scholars and empower practitioners for the common purpose of improving the public’s health and well-being.
The School’s CPDM certificate, a comprehensive online disaster management program, was developed 10 years ago by one of the top departments of health policy and management in the country and has admitted more than 350 students from 29 states, 72 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Australia, Canada, India and Kenya. The program is based on the principle that successful management of future disasters – whether natural or human-caused – will only be achieved if all involved communicate, work and train well together.