Montgomery County Family Reunification Exercise

March 31st, 2014 by Maggie Davis

When a major disaster strikes a community, there are more than just first responder rescue efforts to consider.  Notification and reunification of family members during and after a mass casualty event is a key part of emergency management, requiring many different organizations to work together in order to address the behavioral health needs of a community.   On March 18, 2014, Montgomery County, MD practiced its capability to respond to behavioral health issues resulting from a mass casualty incident, as well as the readiness of public and private partners, through a simulated family reunification center.

To test Montgomery County’s current capability, the International Cultural Center in Gaithersburg opened as a Family Reunification Center following a hypothetical disaster that had taken place in the County.  The mock mass casualty scenario was an explosion during a youth sporting tournament.  At the same time, citizens and spectators at another indoor location began to experience symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent.  In the scenario, the County restricts access to the scene itself and establishes the nearby Family Reunification Center.

The purpose of the Family Reunification Center is to assist in the efforts of connecting individuals that were either victims, or were present, during the incident with their loved ones.  In opening the Reunification Center, a wide variety of departments and organizations were involved, including:

  • Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems
  • Department of Human Resources, Office of Emergency Operations
  • Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, Behavioral Health and Crisis Services
  • Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, Aging and Disability
  • Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Services
  • Mental Health Association of Montgomery County
  • International Cultural Center
  • Faith Community Working Group
  • Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office

In addition to the groups that had volunteers playing active roles during the exercise, the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security observed the exercise.

For the exercise, approximately 20 volunteers acted as distressed family members that were trying to located loved ones that may have been involved in the incident.  Each volunteer was given a card with a fictional background and role to play during the exercise.  Some volunteers were parents of young children at the sporting event.  Others had relatives that worked nearby the incident site, or had another reason to be in the area that day.

During the exercise, the employees and volunteers of the Family Reunification Center worked to identify family members.  The process started with a registration table for individuals to list their contact information and a description of the person or persons for whom they were looking.  While waiting for their registration to be processed, many of the family members continued to try and call or text their loved ones involved in the event, with the success of their communication attempts pre-scripted.  Staff members of the Family Reunification Center worked to counsel families while they waited for news of their loved ones, worked on locating individuals that were at the sporting event through an electronic database, and keep everyone at the Center calm and as informed as possible.

The exercise lasted two hours, with the actors doing a great job in portraying real issues during the event.  For example, some of the actors had contact from outside individuals sharing distressing news.  Others were scripted to get information from a news source or other rumors of the event.  Some of the families did not speak English, needing a translator to help navigate the registration process.  Also, the Reunification Center staff members were tasked with giving distressing information to some of the families there—which was done in a small group setting in a private room.

All in all, the exercise showed that Montgomery County is quite prepared for opening and operating a Family Reunification Center in the case of a mass casualty event.  The exercise did highlight some logistical items that could make such a center operate more smoothly, from which the community leaders and County workers will learn from to create an even better functioning Family Reunification Center.


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