Lea Hill: A Safe Place to be in the Event of a Disaster


Residents of Wesley Homes Lea Hill test their emergency preparedness with a disaster simulation drill.

It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving at Wesley Homes Lea Hill, and at 9:00 a.m., there’s a weather alert for a severe wind and storm watch. With minimal staff and the campus director out of town, what do you do?

If you’re a member of the campus’ Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), you spring into action. This weather alert simulation took place on October 11 and included staff as well as residents.

For this particular simulation, a nurse in the Lea Hill Rehabilitation & Care Center was the potential Incident Commander, and the resident CERT group was the main response force.

The campus then received a storm warning. No more than 10 minutes later, the campus lost power.

It was a blackout.

The resident response team sprung into action and established a command center near the lobby. They gathered with emergency lanterns around a conference table in a dark office. The mood was subdued. The CERT group is comprised of several groups: Operations, Logistics, First Aid, Trauma and Safety & Structure. The team worked to get the backup power up and running.

“This exercise was designed to challenge our preparedness, so we actually load tested the backup generators during the simulation,” said Wesley Homes Lea Hill Executive Director Greg Byrge, who helped oversee the drill.

This drill was administered by Auburn Emergency Management, which provides generalized disaster preparedness training to community groups and organizations. To test their preparedness, neither residents nor staff were told beforehand what exactly would happen during the drill. The Auburn Emergency Management team would inject a variety of incidents into the exercise to test the campus’s emergency response.

It’s standard procedure for the lea Hill front desk to dial 911 during an emergency, but in the simulation, the city’s estimated response time was at least one hour. The front desk staff prioritized internal phone calls and became a key component for relaying urgent information between everyone on campus and the CERT command center.

Other simulated incidents during the drill included:

  • A visitor experiencing chest pain. The resident First Aid team was dispatched to aid the visitor.
  • Two downed trees, one of which fell onto part of the building. After each tree fall, the command center dispatched appropriate response teams, such as First Aid and Safety & Structure. The teams evacuated the “damaged” apartment, provided any necessary medical aid and assessed the extent of the damage. All of this was then reported back to the CERT command center.

To simulate the potential chaos during a real disaster, the team also received less urgent calls, including a call from a resident to ask if lunch would still be served. The drill was also designed to test how response teams should prioritize calls and events.

Jerry Thorson, Auburn Emergency Management Manager, led the drill and worked with residents on injecting incident events into the simulation. Jerry said Lea Hill’s responsiveness is far beyond what he’s used to seeing.

“I was very impressed with the response. It’s rare to see a community this well prepared,” said Jerry.

Jerry said this was a particularly unique drill because the response team consisted mostly of residents rather than just staff. He was also impressed by Lea Hill’s dedication to response efforts.

Seven years ago, after an evaluation of safety measures and of the campus’s ability to respond to disasters, residents and staff took the CERT course. Residents also realized that they needed responders for times when there were not many staff members on hand.

“The fire department’s main priorities tend to be schools and hospitals. We enrolled in CERT training so that we could be self reliant,” said Millard Battles, one of the residents who spearheaded the CERT initiative.

Lea Hill’s CERT group consists of over 60 members, both residents and staff. The group meets the first Thursday of every month to check in and review procedures.

“Our goal is to get to a point where we know how to respond to any emergency, almost by second nature,” said Millard.

This is where the training drills, including the one that took place last month, help.

“Greg and the Lea Hill management have been very supportive and engaged. This level of leadership really facilitates our efforts to train people on emergency response and disaster preparedness,” said Jerry.

CERT residents were analytical of their performance, concentrating on ways they could improve. Other residents expressed gratitude for the CERT drill and felt reassured in their safety.

“It went really well,” said Greg. “Residents were happy to participate in the drill and seemed to appreciate seeing how well prepared our campus is. The exercise allowed us to determine how we can improve. Considering how much went right, it also gave us great confidence in our ability to respond.”

One of the Auburn Emergency Management team members, Tyler Turner mentioned, “Lea Hill is one of the safest places to be in the event of a disaster.”

CERT is free to the public and involves classroom education and hands-on training in disaster preparedness, emergency management, fire safety, first aid and more. For more information, visit ready.gov.