First responders prepare for the worst with mass evacuation practice

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JEFFERSON CITY — More than 180 people from all over the state of Missouri gathered to talk about and practice what steps should be taken in case of a disaster involving children. 

The discussions are part of Children and Youth in Disasters Conference. The conference is designed for people who primarily help when disasters occur in Missouri. Disasters include natural disasters and traumatic events that occur within a school. 

Many of the people in attendance were part of law enforcement, child care agencies, social services and other state departments.

Director of Public and Legislative affairs for the Department of Mental Health Debra Walker said it's important that these types of conferences are held in order to know how to properly respond to emergencies. 

"If you just have written plans and you don't exercise them every now and again and connect with the people that bring the resources together during a disaster, then written plans are really no more than words on paper," Walker said. 

The conference consisted of breakout workshops but the main focus was the disaster simulation. The exercise consisted of the participants being evacuated from the Plaza Hotel and being taken to a local church for reunification. 

During the reunification process participants of the conference were given a different persona they had to portray. The scenario given for the exercise was a tornado hitting. The participants had to locate where they needed to be and who they needed to locate. 

State Emergency Management Agency worker Deb Hendricks was one of the people in charge of creating the different profiles for the conference goers. 

"The idea is we're showing how complicated it can be to get families back together after a disaster," Hendricks said. 

Hendricks said there are some plans in place now but her, along with the participants of the conference, want to figure out how to improve what happens after an emergency situation. 

Hendricks said one problem her department is working to figure is how to sort out legal issues between parents and children during an emergency.

"There are divorced parents who may or may not have custody," Hendricks explained. "There's a lot of confusion about 'is dad legally allowed to pick this child up or is that against a court order?'"

Preparedness Division Manager and conference participant Melissa Friel had to portray a 4 year-old who was separated from his mom during the tornado. Friel said it was an eye-opening experience and gave a suggestion to improve children finding their parents in case of an emergency.

"I think we would need more staff working with kids," Friel said. "Figuring out where to take them and how to communicate with them effectively."

Hendricks also said it is "critically important" have an individual family plan just in case of an emergency and also practice it.