After months of planning, the Oneida County Health Department tested its Public Health Emergency Preparedness Family Assistance Center (FAC) Plan Thursday with a full-scare exercise at Grace Foursquare Church's community building.
According to Marta McMillion, assistant director of the health department, a family assistance center is a secure facility set up in the event of a mass casualty event, disaster or other incident.
"It's a secure facility that serves as a centralized location in order to provide information and resources to both families and potentially victims," McMillion explained.
Some of the services that would be provided would be family reunification, mental health and spiritual care services, first aid, translation services, as well as how to replace medicine lost in the event, McMillion noted. If needed, notification of next of kin of deceased victims would also be made here.
McMillion explained that a family assistance center is not a shelter, although the central gym would serve as a waiting area for people waiting to be seen in various areas of the center.
"This is entirely different, we're treating it basically as an in and out kind of thing. People may be here for kind of a substantial period of time, but it's not meant to serve as a shelter," she said, adding that the church's community building was the necessary size to host the exercise.
"The location of the family assistance center would depend on the location of the event," McMillion added. "If it were in Minocqua, we would be a little more in that direction."
The size of the event would also play a part in determining where to place the FAC, as well as the time of year, she added.
"There are definitely facilities that we could use during certain times of the year that we would not have access to (during others)," McMillion said, noting that the health department and emergency management maintain a list of facilities around the county "for all sorts of things" like FACs or shelters.
Thursday's exercise was designed around a large structure fire that displaces a large number of individuals. The "victims" were played by about 60 volunteer actors, she said.
"We have some really good actors, they're really keeping us on our toes today," McMillion said, adding that everyone working at the FAC would switch roles in the afternoon so that they would have a chance to view the situation from the other side.
In the event of a real disaster, the FAC would work with 211, an information phone line, and would provide information about the services available at the FAC for people who call, she added.
McMillion said since this is the first time Oneida County has ever run this kind of exercise and the goal was to find out what works, what doesn't work and what bottlenecks there may be in the system so that they can be addressed now rather than during the real thing.
"We did a lot of prep work for this particular exercise," McMillion said. "We've been planning this since January. This plan is one we have never exercised to this capacity or scale before. The point of exercise is to stress it and figure out what we do well, what we may need to improve. So we are looking for the stressors, we are looking for ways we can improve and fix those things in our plan."
From the morning session, it was quickly determined that the registration area was the biggest bottleneck.
"We are already finding ways to improve that, ways to streamline that process," McMillion said. "So we are definitely finding improvements already, places where we need to make changes within our plan."
According to the scenario used in the exercise, the fire occurred at 1 p.m. Wednesday, and the FAC was ready to open by 10 a.m. on Thursday.
"In a real-life incident, (we could get it open) potentially sooner than that," McMillion said, adding that organizers of the exercise looked at what others in the region and country have done with the FAC concept in putting together this one.
"We haven't had anything like this locally," McMillion said. "We are using some examples from the Las Vegas shooting; they opened a family assistance center shortly after that mass shooting and it stayed open for weeks after that. This is definitely a smaller scale than that, but we're definitely taking some lessons learned and some ideas from them, as well."
Taking part in the exercise with the health department were Oneida County Emergency Management, the Human Service Center, Oneida County Social Services, Ascension Medical Group, Oneida County Sheriff's Department, Minocqua and Rhinelander police departments and the North Central Wisconsin Healthcare Emergency Readiness Coalition.
McMillion added that health departments from throughout the regional also had representatives on site to observe.
"The point is, we will be ready as a region together for this," McMillion said.
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