Day in the Fields: Volunteering at the Special Olympics NA Golf Tournament

I’m taking a task-less moment to document the fun I’ve been having. This is Day Two of my volunteering gig I got with the Emergency Management Group-Washington who is deployed to support the North American Golf Championship for the Special Olympics.

20170626_145441.jpgYesterday, I was on the Seattle campus of University of Washington (UW) in a little conference room in the basement of a faraway building watching various monitors and chasing details. The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) takes note of potential threats, plans, daily schedules, contact information for liaising groups, keeps radios charged, and holds first aid equipment for off duty med staffers. It is the information hub and it’s run–today at least–by 4 hardworking, always cheerful, and ever-dedicated women and overseen by the experienced and knowledgeable Director who sometimes drops by to fix the wobbly internet. I sat at a long table with my tiny laptop and watched TweetDeck (our Twitter aggregator) update languidly. I delved deep into the hinterlands of NOAA to find the exact right weather report for tomorrow. (We need to tell the med tent if they should expect heat stroke). I listened to a UW representative who had dropped by for a radio describe what their crisis management office was up to. It was a quiet day–pretty much ideal for our line of work.

20170628_120624Today, I’m following the Director around on the golf course itself. We’re mostly based at the med tent which is staffed with two doctors and two EMTs on golf carts. It’s very quiet today and comfortably cool. We’ve had some radio problems, but otherwise all is running smoothly.

While we are here to protect the health and safety of the athletes and volunteers, we’re also treating this as a practice run for The Special Olympics golf tournament in 2018 which will see thousands more athletes, and many more spectators and volunteers. We’re collecting notes and opinions about the event to include in an After Action Report which will help us plan next year better.

We take a break in the clubhouse (where there’s power outlets) to gather some information. Yesterday, we heard about a townhall meeting being hosted on the UW campus concerning an incendiary social-justice topic. There might be protesters which line or block the path our athletes were going to use to get home tonight. No one is expecting the protectors to be violent, but we’ve also seen how these things quickly escalate and it’s our job to be extra safety-conscious especially since we’re supporting our own sometimes-vulnerable population. So the leadership staff spent last evening developing an alternate transportation plan and today, the Director made the finishing touches and sent it out to all his staff. My job was to research and verify the protest (we’d heard conflicting reports). I felt all my Millenial training come to my aid–finally it was good for something–as I scoured the internet for signs of unrest. Exactly one of the words I reported made it into the plan. And it was paraphrased.

Still, I like contributing. I’m learning a lot and am grateful for the opportunity to meet my ilk. Here’s to those behind the scenes. Great job.

Update: Nothing happened at the protests. The athletes were walked home via a different path and didn’t even seem to notice the change. I’m glad.


Researcher on the Road: Survivability

Yesterday, we stopped in on our friends at the Washington State Emergency Management Division at Camp Murray.


They graciously gave us a tour of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and it was So. Cool. Downstairs, it’s dark and empty and very quiet. The whole bottom floor is dedicated to disaster management. There’s cubicles where the search and rescue teams sit, there’s a tiny kitchen, lots of binders, files, and posters filed neatly. If you turn left you’ll see an assuming door entering into the main, super-cool part.

EOC proper looks like a modern version of the Mission Control room in Apollo 13. Giant screens line one wall (tuned to CNN or a slide show presentation as needed, I’m told). 5 tvs sit side by side in each corner of the room. Giant whiteboards have today’s wi-fi password on it and big, clean spaces ready for writing. Maps of all sorts serve as functional decoration on free surfaces. Way, way up there’s windows looking down on us. That’s the Planning Room where the state authorities and FEMA have a birds-eye view.

Desks are broken up into pods, but don’t have any cubicle walls to impede communication. I could imagine people milling about and shouting across the room to one another. But maybe there’s more decorum during a disaster than that.

None of these people were here when I visited. This is "activated" status.
None of these people were here when I visited. This is “activated” status.

Opposite the giant screens on the one side are several rooms. One is a super secret communications room that we’re not allowed to see. A few look like nondescript offices. And the largest one sprawling importantly in the middle is the Alert and Warning Center (AWC). It’s the only room on the whole floor with anyone in it today, it seems like.

WA state AWC
WA state AWC. Sorry for the substandard pic. It’s pretty dim in there!

It’s staffed, I’m told, 24/7 and is responsible for monitoring the entire state for trouble. I’m shown the computers with steady green dots on a map–tsunami detectors off the coast. Nearby are lahar monitors, muted CNN on tv’s, maps, equipment I don’t understand, and–in the center–a little tabletop shelf where all of the state’s procedures are laid open. The AWC serves as the primary warning point for everything including: civil disturbances, earthquakes, forest fires, dam failure, floods, severe weather, lahars, landslides, HazMat incidents, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, and radiological accidents. So there’s a lot on that little tabletop shelf.

The building itself, I discovered–as we were ushered reluctantly out–is build on “base isolators” or giant bearings that sit in a concrete bowl shaped like a tiny half-pipe. Base Isolators let the building stay straight up instead of swaying and toppling during an earthquake. (Left pic courtesy of 21Century Builders. Right, courtesy KPFF Consulting Engineers who built the WA state EOC isolators and discuss it here.)

The official FAQ sheet I picked up on my way out says that the “building [was] designed…with the primary goal of survivability, particularly in the event of an earthquake. Building designed to continue to operate with minimal damage following a 1000 year earthquake” (italics/bold in original). A “1000 year earthquake” refers to the size  of the earthquake and the probability of it’s occurring, not the duration. It’s so big that we have to talk about it’s chances of happening in thousands of years. Cities, for example, often plan for a “100 year flood” which is a flood with 1% chance of happening in any given year. (Here’s more if you want to understand the math of that.) So a 1000 year earthquake is a really devastating one. This building will stand when everything around it is completely gone. And the people in it will still be working at saving lives from the rubble.

That’s somehow comforting, no?