Early spring blizzards have been making headlines around the country. The unexpected storms leave many travelers stranded, causing problems for emergency response personnel.
While major storms have largely missed the Southwest this year, they can and do happen in New Mexico. Preparation and training are key to efficient emergency response.
A multi-agency cascading events full-scale exercise was held recently in Socorro to address some of the issues that could occur in a spring blizzard situation.
The Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center hosted the training, in conjunction with the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, New Mexico Department of Agriculture, New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico Livestock Board, New Mexico Veterinary Diagnostic Services, Socorro County Emergency Management, Socorro General Hospital, and New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service. Participants practiced procedures for when highway closures strand people and livestock in a small town.
Approximately 160 personnel from the agencies participated in the exercise.
“The purpose of the training is to bring all the different agencies that might have a role in response to an overall statewide disaster together to test our response systems,” said Jeff Witte, New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture. “How would we handle 2,000 stranded livestock in which a fatal illness begins? And what would we do if the people in the shelters begin to get ill from contaminated food, causing a surge of patients at the local hospital?”
Fatally ill animals and sick people were the two scenarios of the training. Participants resolved scripted problems as the event unfolded. In addition to hands-on training for procedures that would be needed to determine the cause of illnesses, lectures were given on various aspects of responding to the situations.
“We brought in NMSU Extension’s county agricultural agents for training because they are the folks on the ground in an emergency situation,” Witte said. “They know their county’s agricultural community, such as where and what is being raised whether it is livestock or crops. They are a tremendous resource that is truly important.”
While emergency response personnel are trained to respond to fires and floods, Witte said they are not trained to handle 2,000 head of cattle in an agriculture-type emergency.
“So this training was an educational process for them,” Witte said. “They are learning of the resources we have in Extension, NMDA and the livestock board. Now they know they don’t have to cover all of the gaps in their service that might occur in an emergency involving agriculture. They now know they can come to us.”
While participants addressed the agricultural scenario at the Socorro County Fairground, volunteer actors were testing the emergency response capacity of Socorro General Hospital by arriving at the emergency room with various symptoms.
“Local hospitals practice medical surge and triage at least once a year, but NMDOH has not done one in association with NMDA,” said Paul Ettestad, state public health veterinarian in the New Mexico Department of Health’s epidemiology and response division. “This was a good practice for us to coordinate our efforts with the other agencies.”
The ultimate purpose of the training was to stress the emergency response systems of the various agencies and to identify gaps that need to be fixed.
“We discovered where agencies and industry need to pull together to identify creative solutions to get through a crisis situation,” Witte said. “If we do it now in a simulation, when we have time to think through these situations, then in a real-life situation, we can react faster and more effectively.”
Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center is housed at NMSU’s College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. It coordinates trainings and exercises for the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.