The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 14, 2009


Volunteers reflect on emergency shelter experiences

Two members of Carlisle’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) had a chance to witness the challenges of shelter management in action during last winter’s ice storm when they volunteered at different emergency shelters. Donna Margolies, a nurse, helped at a shelter in Fitchburg and EMT Bill Ho volunteered in Worcester. Recently, they shared their thoughts about the lessons learned during the ice storm.

Donna Margolies

Margolies is a member of the Carlisle MRC Executive Committee who spent a day during the ice storm helping in a shelter run by the city of Fitchburg, working with many area volunteers.

Several years ago Margolies took a course at Concord-Carlisle Community Education designed to train volunteers to serve in a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), newly formed under the Concord Fire Department. She was attracted to the idea that she could use her skills as a former emergency room nurse serving the community where she lives. Essentially the goal of the CERT is to back up an emergency medical system that is likely to be overwhelmed in a disaster, and to organize volunteers to provide shelter following a disaster for 48 hours, until the Red Cross can set up a more permanent operation.

Margolies’ class included physicians, lay people and psychologists, and was taught by Ken Willette, Concord Fire Chief at the time. The curriculum was originally developed on the West Coast to prepare people from the community to help and support those who have witnessed traumatic events like an earthquake, and included both “basic” and “psychological” first aid.

Family responsibilities had forced her to leave her demanding nursing job in 2000 but she wanted to continue to use her skills, and she has remained an active member of the Concord CERT. She has continued in training events with that group, and participated in a practice emergency drill last fall in Concord. Eventually, Margolies hopes to be certified to manage a Red Cross shelter, but due to Red Cross funding problems the required courses have not been available.

Margolies volunteers in Fitchburg

At an April 27 meeting of the MRC Executive Committee she described as “scary” the fact that the shelter mixed residents from a homeless shelter together with nursing mothers. She was also surprised at the absence of record-keeping of any kind. There were no check-in or check-out procedures, thus no way to know who was present in the shelter at any time, and no way to keep track of whatever examinations or treatments residents might receive while in the shelter. She improvised a paper-and-pencil log for herself.

Volunteers in Fitchburg were unable to dispense medication, but Fitchburg kitchen workers, who normally feed seniors in the armory that housed the shelter, were able to provide hot meals.

Volunteers, neighbors, self-help needed

Margolies has watched the CERT organization in Concord grow and develop with time and continuing training, adding capacities for service. For instance the Concord CERT is currently working to establish relationships with town businesses to be able to get supplies in an emergency – with pharmacies to fill prescriptions and supply basic non-prescription drugs, with restaurants to provide food, and with retail stores to get clothing if necessary. Also a network of ham radio operators during drills have set up a communication system that is independent of landline and cell phones, which might be overwhelmed in a disaster. The ham radios link the shelter with the Emergency Medical System, with the potential to also link to neighborhoods using hand-held devices.

Margolies looks forward to similar developments in Carlisle, with time. Based on her experience with the drills she’s helped with in Concord and in the Fitchburg shelter, Margolies realized how much medical volunteers need ordinary lay people “to support the work” of running an emergency operation – to do the “baseline organization.” Carlisle will need many helpers without medical training just to run the operation (fill in forms, fetch supplies, etc and to “break it down” after the emergency is over. Most of Concord’s CERT volunteers are retired, and Margolies believes that retired Carlisle residents are an untapped resource for the MRC.

Asked what else could happen to protect Carlisle citizens in an emergency, Margolies focuses on the need for “a sense of community” within neighborhoods. Beyond each family’s preparation for what they would need, Margolies also says it’s “essential” to “establish contact within your neighborhood.” People are “drawn to . . . the sense of privacy” in Carlisle, she notes. However, the way the town is laid out, with houses widely separated, in an unexpected event like a huge tree blocking the driveway and and no phone service, your neighbors may be the only ones to get help and/or communicate with the outside world.

Margolies also emphasizes self-help, “try to think ahead about what you’d need in an emergency” and have those supplies available, especially drinking water. (For suggestions see: “It sounds dumb, but slim jims and water could get you through the first 24 hours,” she advises.

Ho volunteers in Worcester

Ho served a 12-hour shift in a shelter at Worcester High School. Between 20 and 25 people, primarily adults, were there most of the day. Some had been sent by two institutional homes without power. They had health or mental issues and many were on medication. One in particular “probably needed more medical care than was available.”

Among the operational issues Ho observed was that there seemed to be no one officially managing the shelter. John, a Sudbury psychologist and MRC volunteer who arrived at the same time as Ho, became a de facto leader as he “jumped in to try to” collect and communicate information. But still there was little or no information available about who was there, how to obtain needed supplies, medications or food, when such supplies might be arriving, or whom to contact. “No one seemed to know what was going to be coming and when,” Ho reports. Fortunately, Ho said that two of the high school maintenance people were on duty and “really helpful” about showing them where things were.

There also seemed to be lack of coordination of the volunteers who came to help. A group of about eight nurses came at mid-morning, “just to serve food” they said, but there was no food to serve. No one knew when or if any food was coming, so when lunch had not arrived by 12:30 p.m. the nurses handed out boxed lunches from D’Angelo’s that were left from dinner the night before. An hour later other volunteers delivered peanut butter and jelly and loaves of bread.

Besides food delivery, there was no provision to obtain even over-the-counter medicines. In one case, a volunteer went out to buy Tylenol from a CVS. Late in the afternoon, when a resident needed medication she’d left in her house, Ho and another volunteer had to drive to her house to meet a neighbor who had retrieved it for them.

Fortunately, though, most of those sheltered had their own medication and took it themselves. Also, staff people sent by the homes dispensed medication to those from the institutions, and there were other, “very helpful and professional” nurses.

Ho had been to a Red Cross training for working in shelters before his ice storm experience. “Now that I’ve done it, I understand how it works and I’d be more comfortable doing it again,” he says. He believes that Carlisle’s operation might benefit from more practice with “real people showing up.” He helped with such a drill during a flu clinic in Billerica last year, and was impressed especially by the number of volunteers on hand.

Even though the Worcester operation was “not 100% smooth,” Ho describes volunteering in the shelter as a good experience. “They [the clients] got what they needed” and, except for some boredom, “everybody was happy.” Some of the volunteers were “really good” and most of the people served were “friendly and grateful for the food and a place to stay.”

Ho has faith that “things will run more smoothly” in Carlisle, given the leadership of Board of Health Agent Linda Fantasia and Fire Chief David Flannery. Also, in Carlisle all the volunteers will be local, working in one place, not scattered in various locations as in Worcester. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito