Editor’s Note: This continues our Celebrate Community series on North Okaloosa County nonprofits that enhance our quality of life.
CRESTVIEW—Evacuating to an emergency shelter can be a stressful and confusing time. For those with special needs those feelings can be compounded.
The Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, with assistance from the volunteer-based Okaloosa-Walton Medical Reserve Corps, comes to the aid of those with special needs in times of evacuation.
“This isn’t a ‘plan A’ location for people but it’s an option,” Assistant Director of the DOH-Okaloosa Carrie Ziegler said.
That location is Davidson Middle School, which within a matter of hours can transform into a refuge for people requiring concentrated oxygen, electronic-based life support equipment, or other low-need medical care.
The school gymnasium already functions as a general population shelter for people seeking a place to stay during times of inclement weather, but a separate wing of the school converts to a hospital-like environment.
Ziegler stresses that the facility doesn’t have the resources or staff of an actual hospital, so individuals with more “serious conditions” are encouraged to consult those fully-functioning medical facilities.
What the special needs shelter can provide is more specialized care than that found in a general evacuation shelter.
Shelter seekers check into the location’s triage and have needs assessed by the medical volunteers and staff before being placed into one of several classrooms. The rooms are void of traditional student desks and replaced with large, green sleeping cots. Each room holds nine cots.
Different rooms service different needs such as oxygen machines or fans. Individuals in need of a caretaker or medications must supply their own, given the shelter’s limited resources.
The capacity is approximately 87, according to a representative for the shelter. Volunteers and staff work in several shifts based on the nature of the emergency and altogether about 70 workers of both medical and non-medical backgrounds run the operation.
The special needs shelter hasn’t opened since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and that’s why volunteers and staff conducted a practice exercise Monday. The school’s spring break allowed the various departments to clear needed classrooms and run mock emergency scenarios.
The exercises included patient actors who were given prompt cards to help volunteers address a range of scenarios.
The practices allow volunteers and staff to gain insight to how the shelter should function and to address questions or concerns that might not be written into policy.
One such debate occurred over a “patient” who was admitted to the shelter with a dog. Service animals are permitted but generally, an individual can’t bring their pet. However, this sparked questions from attendees such as what to do if a patient refuses to be separated from their pet or if current weather conditions prevent them from leaving.
“We have evaluators that are a part of the sessions and not only do they take notes on performance but also note questions such as that,” Ziegler said. “The questions are reviewed by staff and used to make our process better.”
A full exercise like Monday’s takes place about every other year, according to DOH-Okaloosa Public Information Officer Ryan Mims.
“I’d say about 90 percent of our staff has been recycled since the last time we had to open,” Mims said.
The logistics of running a full-scale exercise are cumbersome and thus, smaller exercises and training are conducted throughout the year, according to Mims.
The Reserve Corps and DOH-Okaloosa advise individuals to pre-register for the special needs shelter to ensure adequate resources and care if an emergency occurred. Registration is active for a full year but does not guarantee the shelter can accommodate a person’s needs. The number of currently registered individuals was not immediately available.
Visit www.snr.floridadisaster.org/ to register for the shelter. Call 833-9240 for any questions concerning the shelter or to become a member of the Medical Reserve Corps.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated the Medical Reserve Corps were the lead in the shelter operation. This information has been corrected to the reflect the DOH-Okaloosa as the operation's lead.