When Alaska native Edna Savetilik left her home in Shaktoolik, Alaska, Nov. 9, to attend training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Ala., she admitted, she didn’t really know what she was getting into.

Shaktoolik is best known as a checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail. The village sits on a spit of land in the Bering Sea, 125 miles east of Nome and 38 miles from the nearest town and is all but surrounded by the waters of the Tagoomenik River and the Norton Sound. Shaktoolik is home to 250 Alaska Natives who live the subsistence lifestyle of their ancestors, living off a diet of fish, whale, hunted game, berries and roots. But, now the villagers’ home is under constant threat.

Every spring and fall, Shaktoolik succumbs to severe flooding and coastal erosion. The situation has become so dire in recent years that in 2009, a federal Government Accounting Office report listed Shaktoolik as one of four Alaska communities “likely need[ing] to move all at once and as soon as possible” because of the continued flooding and erosion.

While Savetilik may not have known what she was getting into when she traveled more than 3,700 miles to attend CDP training, she knew what she wanted to get out of it.

“We are looking for ways that we can prepare for the flood, instead of reacting to it,” said the retired village supervisor with a sense of determination.

Savetilik was one of 23 Native Americans and Alaska Natives who attended the third Native American cohort – a group of students comprised solely of Native Americans, Alaska natives and others who work in Tribal communities – training held at the CDP in the past two years. In this cohort, the students represented 12 different Tribal nations and Alaska Native villages from five states.

“Native Americans and Native Alaskans attend CDP training throughout the year, but the challenges Tribal Nations and Native Alaskan Villages face differ from the typical state orlocal government issues, especially when it comes to resources,” said the CDP’s Western Region Coordinator, David Hall, who coordinated all three of the recent Native American cohorts. “When they train together in a cohort, it gives the Tribal students an opportunity to network within the emergency response realm and discuss issues that are more intrinsic to their culture and communities.”

The CDP is unique in its approach to training. For starters, CDP training is fully funded for state, local, tribal and territorial responders. This includes the costs of the student’s airfare, lodging and meals. “When a state, local, tribal or territorial responder signs up on the website for training, that request goes to that responder’s State Administrative Agency (SAA) for approval. Once the SAA confirms that the applicant is a state, local, tribal or territorial responder, the application is forwarded to the CDP for processing and the responder is scheduled for training and issued his or her airline ticket,” Hall explained.

In addition, the center trains responders in all 10 emergency response and receiver disciplines. The CDP staff teaches more than 40 different advanced, hands-on courses – averaging seven courses a week. In addition, responders earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for CDP courses.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s unique about the CDP. To continue, the CDP is home to the nation’s only toxic-chemical agent training facility for civilian responders. In layman’s terms, the CDP is the only training center where civilian responders actually train using GB (sarin) and VX nerve agents, as well as ricin and anthrax biological materials. This gives responders the experience and confidence in their equipment before they have to use it in a real-word situation.

And, if that’s not enough, the CDP also has a 162,000 square-foot hospital, complete with emergency department, emergency operations center, intensive care unit and wards that is used in training healthcare, public health and environmental health personnel. It’s the only hospital in the United States that is dedicated solely to training.

For Savetilik and her fellow villagers, their challenge is relatively unique, too, even among Alaska Native villages. The Shaktoolik villagers must either find a way to keep the flooding and erosion at bay or move the village inland, but one estimate places the moving costs at more than $1 million per villager for each of the 250 residents. So, for now, the villagers are opting to stay and battle the floods and erosion.

The villagers have already taken a strong first step, according to Teresa Perry, another Shaktoolik resident who attended CDP training along with Savetilik. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) Council, the city council and the Shaktoolik Native Corporation have been working together for years to address the erosion problem, explained Perry, the IRA President in Shaktoolik. With funding the village obtained from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation and the Alaska Department of Transportation, the village built a four-foot berm from logs and gravel, on which they are now growing vegetation to shore it up even more. The villagers’ hopes are the berm will limit the flooding and erosion.

Traveling from just south of the Artic Circle to Alabama to take the CDP’s Incident Command: Capabilities, Planning and Response Actions for All Hazards (IC) course is another step in the villagers’ approach to addressing their community’s needs.

The course provides management-level responders with the knowledge on how decisions made by responders from various disciplines can and do impact the handling of an incident. The students learn the importance of planning and training for a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives (CBRNE) or any other incident response by practicing preparedness planning considerations and applying incident management concepts during their training. During the course, the students learn to evaluate threats, measure required capabilities and discuss the Incident Response Plan and the Incident Action Plan processes.

“One of the things I really picked up on was when our instructor introduced us to the [Incident Command] forms they use,” Perry explained. “It will be really good for us to use, too, for critical incidents or search and rescue, like when one of our local hunters gets lost. It’s something we could use for other incidents, like an airplane crash. That’s happened during the Iditarod.”

The course culminates with a real-time, scenario-driven exercise during which the students apply the concepts they have learned to plan and manage their emergency response resources.

“I learned a lot because it was more hands-on,” Savetilik said. Savetilik is now retired. She ice fishes, supports school-related activities and spends time with her 19 grandchildren. But, she and her fellow council members are looking forward to coming back to the CDP for more training that will help them better prepare Shaktoolik for what emergency may come their way.