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Qwest, local companies prepare for the worst


Helping customers with telephone service issues and learning how to assist in the event of a large-scale disaster are all in a day’s work for some area employees at Qwest Communications International Inc.

Representatives from the American Red Cross Central Iowa chapter hosted disaster training workshops for Qwest employees and retirees on Jan. 28 and Feb. 4. About 70 people learned skills that will help them respond to incidents involving large numbers of casualties. The Red Cross plans to expand its volunteer base of disaster responders by providing similar training to other companies and organizations in Greater Des Moines.

“This training is really used in all disaster situations, whether it be a flood, a tornado, a school shooting or a terrorism attack,” said Margie Conrad, the ARC Central Iowa director of disaster mental health and program development.

Conrad said it had been several years since her chapter had trained people in disaster response. She would like to see a pool of 150 to 200 people ready to help during a large disaster.

“It was time to get back on track,” she said. “The tsunamis and the mudslides in California were a motivator to remind us of how vulnerable we are. We felt that we needed to make the time now and do the training while we had the chance.”

The hour-long disaster-relief training includes a lecture, a demonstration and a video. It’s a brief orientation to the myriad circumstances disaster relief responders might encounter, but it’s enough to qualify the Qwest employees to provide assistance during a multiple-casualty or other catastrophic event.

“Right now they already know enough to help us,” Conrad said. “Qwest employees will be able to help gather data, give emotional support, track victims and any number of needs associated with disaster situations. They’d be working under a coordinator with one of our experienced people.”

Conrad said she sees a benefit to having a large number of trained volunteers with a common bond, such as the case with the Qwest workers and the other groups that will be trained in the near future.

“The No.1 advantage is that I have a contact at the company that can help me get the message out to people, so that I only make one call instead of having to make 60 calls,” Conrad said. “I know that not everyone trained will be able to get off work to help us, but at least we are able to reach a large number of people in a short period of time.”

Paula Brown, a volunteer and disaster instructor for the Red Cross, said the volunteers support disaster-relief professionals during emergencies involving 20 or more critical patients. The volunteers work alongside fire departments, police and emergency teams and in conjunction with local hospitals. In many cases, a volunteer’s primary role would be working in family centers, a central place for victims’ families to go to get information and support during a disaster.

“It’s not skilled work, but if we didn’t do it, the family members would be going from hospital to hospital to find information about their loved one,” Brown said. “This way, they go to one central location and find out what they need. It leaves emergency room personnel able to deal with casualties and clients coming in, and it saves wear and tear on the family members because they can be in a central place where information is available as quickly as possible, and there is help and support available there that is specific to their needs.”

The local disaster-response volunteers will be invited to participate in regular drills and training exercises to gain more understanding of how the Red Cross delivers relief services to victims.

The partnership between Qwest and the Red Cross stemmed from a 14-state grant the telecommunications company made last May to raise awareness of the Red Cross’ need for disaster-planning volunteers. Qwest employees showed interest in doing more with the Red Cross, and the company also recognized practical implications.

“As a communications company, Qwest employees always are at the forefront of helping a community recover during times of crises,” said Kara Rovere, a Qwest spokeswoman. “We work to restore communications as our number one priority. Obviously, it makes sense for Qwest to encourage our folks to become disaster trained.”

Jill Tigges, a Qwest service-delivery coordinator, participated in the Red Cross training. She said her co-workers quickly took to the idea of being trained.

“There’s been an excellent response from my co-workers at Qwest to volunteer their communications skills with their community in the event of an emergency,” Tigges said. “Many of my co-workers have shared the same comments that I have also felt during disasters, such as the Floods of ’93 and 9/11, wanting to be a part of the recovery efforts.”

Tigges, who recently started an internship with the Red Cross as part of her pursuit of a master’s degree in public heath from Des Moines University, said she is glad for the training, but hopes “we never have to use it.”

Stephen Henry, the president of Iowa State Bank, said he also wants his employees to be able to help during an emergency. The bank is in the process of coordinating training sessions with the Red Cross.

“We have a corporate responsibility not only to the employees of my bank, but also to the citizens in the community and employees of other organizations,” Henry said. “Since we are a community bank, we are constantly looking for ways to reach out and show people that we are really connected to the community.”

Henry is a member of a downtown emergency planning organization formed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Because Iowa State Bank is located at the base of the state Capitol, which has an elevated risk of being a terrorist target, Henry wants his employees to always consider the big picture.

“The more people who are trained to help with any kind of evacuation or mass- casualty event, the more organized you can be and the more lives can be saved. That’s really the bottom line,” he said.

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