Thursday, February 19, 2015

The After-Action: Salute to Our Survivors

Whether they're screaming bloody murder inside a burn building at the Fire Academy, or silently shuffling around a former cell block at the Lorton training site, volunteer victim actors play a critical role in Fairfax County Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Training.
Done up in realistic wound makeup (moulage), and coached on how to portray the symptoms they've been given, live victim actors allow us to kick up the realism factor in training classes and exercises.

There's a lot CERT rescuers can learn from a dummy, but nothing beats working with live human patients. At our November CERT graduation exercise, we had a record number of victim actors: 168, which included students, police cadets, active duty military, FEMA Corps volunteers, and many more folks from around the region.

The following photos highlight some of the victim actors from the November 15 exercise, and explain more about the important role they play in training CERTs to respond to major disasters where first responders are delayed.

Recruiting Victim Actors

The most important way we recruit victim actors is by requiring CERT students to bring at least two friends or family members to their graduation exercise. In addition, we try to get the word out to schools, emergency managers, drama clubs, volunteer groups, and any other organizations we can think of. Being a victim actor is great for people who are actors, preppers, interested in becoming first responders or health care providers, or want to fulfill a community service requirement.

Joseph Durand is a student who was recruited to be a victim actor by his grandfather, a CERT being tested. In addition to his visible (simulated) facial bruising, he also has been given a severe ankle injury. Since it's not life-threatening but makes him unable to walk, he should get a Yellow tag (Delayed treatment). [Photos by Joe Loong unless otherwise noted.]

In addition, during our regular training classes (especially for the Disaster Medical Operations modules), we reach out to previously trained CERTs. Many CERTs get a new perspective on search and rescue operations when they're on the other side of the headlamp, by seeing the things that other rescuers do -- and don't do -- well.

Cara Christopher is active with Volunteer Fairfax, which is how she learned about the exercise. She's sporting a simulated black eye, which in the scenario was caused by falling debris. Minor facial bruising, by itself, would earn her a Green tag for minor injuries. However, rescuers would still check her mental status by seeing if she could respond to simple commands, as well as make sure her breathing and perfusion were normal.

By working with human victim actors, rescuers can get feedback then they jostle a "broken" limb, blind a patient with their headlamp, or inadvertently step over them. They get to practice their simple triage tests -- checking breathing, doing nail bed tests, issuing simple commands -- to determine how patients should be tagged. And they learn a lot more applying a bandage or splint to a human than they do from a plywood "gingerbread" dummy. And of course, humans are a lot harder to lift and transport than dummies.

John Hawley, sporting a simulated head wound and asked to portray a survivor with a concussion, was recruited to be a victim actor by his wife, a CERT being tested today. Being unable to answer simple commands is a sign of altered mental status, so John should receive a Red tag (Immediate). Next to him is Lindy Bersack, who in addition to having some minor facial bruising, has an injured knee, which is probably a Yellow-tagged injury.

Another thing human actors do is talk back to rescuers. On the one hand, rescuers can get information about the situation and the patient's condition. On the other hand, especially during initial search and triage, rescuers have to learn have to stay focused and not get distracted by patients who are chatty, panicky, or screaming, as they try to triage, treat, and tag each patient in under 30 seconds.

Elaine Offley has several friends going through the graduation exercise today. She also has a simulated compound fracture of the lower right arm. If major bleeding or other injuries aren't present, her wound may be gruesome, but not life threatening, so she would get a Yellow tag (Delayed).

Using human victim actors also opens up practice for a new dimension: Using survivors as assistants. In a mass-casualty event, survivors who are uninjured or have minor injuries can assist rescuers in tasks like keeping pressure on a wound, carrying a stretcher, or even just watching over fellow survivors.

Chris Bryan's aunt is also a CERT in today's exercise. He's sporting some simulated burns on the face and neck, and the tag he'll get will depend on his responses to the simple RPM test the CERTs will give him (checking for Respiration, Perfusion, and Mental Status).

For the Fairfax County CERT program, the well-being of our participants is the number one priority. This means exercise staff are always checking to make sure our victim actors stay hydrated, protected from the elements as much as possible (admittedly, a challenge in really hot or really cold weather), and for our half-day exercises, fed.

When not portraying survivors to help out a friend taking the CERT class, Brian Perez and James Jennings are both currently serving active duty with the US Air Force. Here, they're staying warm as they wait in a cell for rescuers.

Beyond their personal safety, we want to make sure our victim actors understand what's going on, so they stay interested and gain insight on what happens during a disaster response. After all, we love repeat customers who have good things to say about CERT. Even better is when people try their hand at being victim actors, and are then motivated to sign up for the full CERT training class.

Waiting in this cell are Sammy, Rachel, and Rebecca. Sammy and Rebecca are with the Teen CERT program offered through Fairfax County's Falls Church Academy. They'll get the CERT certification as part of their Fire and Emergency Medical Services Program, where they'll receive other certifications that will be useful if they choose to become firefighters or EMTs.

This bunch is composed of students, staffers, and chaperones from the GW Community School in Springfield. This day, they've brought 32 participants, many of whom are veterans of previous CERT exercises at Lorton and the Fire & Rescue Academy.

Moulage: Gory or Non-Gory?

Florita Wesley shows off her simulated injury: A cheek impaled by flying glass. Although her wound looks nasty, by itself, it wouldn't be considered life-threatening. If she's still able to walk, she'd be a Green tag (Minor, or Walking Wounded.) Otherwise, she'd get a Yellow tag (Delayed). Florita learned about the exercise through a newsletter from the Office of Emergency Management, and volunteered because she wanted to do something different.

Victim actors have a voice in the type of fake wounds they'd like. If they don't want fake blood or particularly gruesome injuries, they can get light, or even no makeup. However, more often than not, people want to get into the role with something really juicy, like an impalement, amputation, or dangling eyeball. While we try to accommodate people's requests, the number and severity of simulated injuries is determined by the needs of the training scenario. (So a CERT training exercise probably isn't going to look like an attack scene from The Walking Dead.)

Paul (sporting a head-mounted GoPro camera) is also one of the GW Community School bunch. He's been given some minor scrapes, which by themselves would earn him a Green tag (Minor, or walking wounded.) Paul is acting in the exercise to fulfill a community service requirement, as well as to do something interesting.

Jackie Miller, sporting a simulated head injury, is mom to one of the CERT students trying to graduate. It was also her birthday -- happy belated birthday, and hope you were able to warm up and have a real celebration!

Michael's uncle is also a CERT in today's class. In addition to helping out as a victim actor, Michael hopes to incorporate what he's learning today into a project on human anatomy and physiology.


More About FEMA Corps

Joey Ditirro, Patrick Byrne, and Mikayla McCoy are some of the dozens of FEMA Corps members who showed up and helped with our record-setting victim actor numbers.

One of the reasons why this exercise broke the victim actor participation record is that we were joined by a few dozen FEMA Corps participants. I asked FEMA Corps Team Leader Hannah Bohn to tell us a little bit more about FEMA Corps and her thoughts about the CERT exercise:
"FEMA Corps is a partnership between AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) and FEMA. Corps members who are 18-24 years old commit to 10 months of disaster-related service projects that are sponsored by FEMA. The teams that participated in the full-scale exercise are all from the Southern Region Campus located in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but we are all currently stationed in the National Capital Region (most teams are at FEMA headquarters in D.C., others are in Winchester, VA). Teams do a variety of projects: developing training programs, conducting audits, taking registration/case status update calls from survivors, etc.

A significant part of our service year is participating in independent service projects (ISPs) outside of our daily work. We need at least 10 hours of Stafford Act-related ISPs in order to graduate from the program. Some of our teams in the NCR learned of the exercise and spread the word to other teams because being actors in a full-scale exercise is directly related to the Stafford Act.

We were very impressed by the CERT students. Those who "rescued" us from the "disaster" were professional and supportive. There were many "victims," but it seemed like their rescue and medical attention were well organized. It was fun to play the victim! A chilly day, certainly, but we enjoyed being able to help out!"

A group shot of the FEMA Corps members who participated in the exercise. Photo: Jeffrey Katz.

Once again, we are very grateful for FEMA Corps and all our volunteer victim actors, and for the important role they play in providing realistic and useful training for our CERT students. Thanks so much for participating, and we hope to see you again soon!

Do You Want to Be a Survivor?

If you're interested in being a victim actor at one of our upcoming final graduation exercises at the former Juvenile Detention Center in Lorton (tentatively scheduled for June and October/November 2015), please email Victim Actor Coordinator Kevin at

For other victim actor opportunities, including those at the Fire Academy and at locations throughout the Fairfax County, email Training Coordinator James at

Joe Loong, volunteer Social Media Specialist for Fairfax County CERT, is an editorial content and community engagement consultant. You can email him at

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome insightful comments from the community that add value to the conversation. Spam, offensive, harassing, off-topic or inappropriate posts may be deleted.