Predicting disaster or hazardous incidents is impossible. The next major event can come at any moment. Preparation and planning for the unexpected is the only course of action when the number of lives saved is determined by an appropriate response.

Following a hazardous event, response organizations specializing in a variety of skills are mobilized to assist in the rescue and recovery. These organizations may represent local or state governments with the federal government supporting. Healthcare is no different and as hospitals and clinics become overwhelmed needed medical services become ever more important.

Recently, 39 employees from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) attended training at FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP), in Anniston, Ala. The group represented 14 states and 22 VA medical centers. Acting under the leadership of Health and Human Services (HHS), during an emergency the VA may be activated to perform public health and medical care.

“This training provides a great opportunity for our VA staffs who have never experienced a disaster,” said Tim Turner, area emergency manager for Veterans Health Administration Office of Emergency Management, Birmingham, Ala. “Disaster response is about planning and training like this focuses on that concept and opens discussion about critical decision making skills.”

The VA employees conducted the week of training at the CDP’s Noble Training Facility (NTF). The NTF is the only hospital in the nation solely dedicated to training healthcare professionals for mass casualty response. They attended two healthcare courses, Hospital Emergency Response Training (HERT) and Healthcare Leadership for Mass Casualty Incidents (HCL).

“Having the ability to conduct medical training in an actual hospital was surprising. We don’t see a facility like this often,” said Vince Vernacchio, assistant nurse manager of ambulatory care, Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Charleston, S.C. “I think that having the state-of-the art patient simulators as well as the live role players helped bring the emergency to life and allowed trainees to have a close to real-world experience. We are very fortunate to have a training location like this to learn.”

“I have more confidence in our ability to plan,” said Judy Hamrick, VA deputy nurse executive, Robley Rex VA Medical Center, Louisville, Ky. “If you don’t know your organization’s plan, how do you know you’re completing procedures wrong? Rather than reacting when a disaster occurs, I intend to implement a planned process.”

During training, the students were required to activate the hospital’s command center and effectively provide a medical response to a simulated mass-casualty incident. The training changed slightly from normal operations often experienced in a VA hospital. Common day-to-day practice is to treat veterans, however, following a disaster the VA could be called upon to support state and local healthcare services.

“We never know when something is going to happen,” said Iris Bryan, licensed practical nurse, Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Charleston, S.C. “Most people don’t realize other responsibilities the VA has during a disaster. We have knowledgeable staff who can be put to good use taking care of the population, supporting our state and local agencies.”

The CDP finalized an Interagency Agreement with VHA in Fiscal Year 2013. Over the past eight months the CDP has trained more than 250 VHA personnel and multiple iterations are scheduled throughout the year.

“Most people don’t realize the role VHA could play if Health and Human Services needs their skills,” said Rick Dickson, CDP director of Mission Readiness Integration. “They play an important part supporting our state, local and tribal communities following a disaster. The CDP is part of that support by providing a training area that fully exercises their response skills and planning goals.”

“I did not anticipate how good the training would be,” said Vernacchio. “I’m learning more about the process of responding to a mass casualty type event. The training is going to help identify weak areas and other vulnerabilities in our response plans.”

The CDP plays a leading role in preparing state, local and tribal responders to prepare for and respond to manmade events or major accidents involving mass casualties. CDP training is fully funded for tribal, state, and local response personnel. Round-trip air and ground transportation, lodging, and meals are provided at no cost to responders or their agency or jurisdiction. Federal personnel may also attend the numerous training programs offered at CDP. To learn more about the Center for Domestic Preparedness, visit or call 866-213-9553 or to learn more about the VHA visit You can also visit the CDP on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn