CRESTVIEW — The Okaloosa County Department of Health held its annual special needs shelter training exercise March 20 at Davidson Middle School.

The school serves as a shelter for evacuees during emergencies – such as hurricanes – for people with certain needs, but don’t require skilled medical care or hospitalization.

“A special needs shelter is really a shelter of last resort for people who have some special health conditions,” health department director Dr. Karen Chapman said. “They may need oxygen. They may need electricity. They may have mobility issues.

“But it’s sort of like a little home away from home. They are encouraged and really required to bring a caregiver, and they’ll manage all their own medications through the process.”

The school has not been used as a special needs shelter since 2004 when Hurricane Ivan struck the area. This year was the first year the health department used the gymnasium as their primary area for evacuees, rather than individual classrooms.

During the exercise, the gym was filled with 80 beds to accommodate evacuees. It was split into four sections for ambulatory patients, non-ambulatory patients, patients requiring oxygen and patients requiring electricity for medical purposes, such as charging an electric wheelchair.

The training exercise involved splitting health department employees into two groups, with one group playing the role of evacuees and the other group filling the roles they would normally fill in an evacuation situation. The groups later switched so that everyone received the proper training.

Health department public information officer Kathy Newby encouraged people to register ahead of time to avoid confusion and ensure that they go to the correct place in an emergency situation.

Registering ahead of time will not guarantee a spot in the shelter, but can clear up any confusion about which shelter to go to in the event of an emergency. Those who require more skilled medical conditions will be directed to the correct facility rather than the shelter.

“We don’t provide in-patient care services … at the health department,” Chapman said. “If you’re too high a need and you just show up here then it’s a little more stressful, because here we are, a storm is bearing down.”

Applicants for the shelter will need to re-register each year to stay up-to-date in the system.

To register for the special needs shelter, go to snr.floridadisaster.org/okaloosa.

For more information on the special needs shelter, visit www.healthyokaloosa.com or call 833-9240.