The Virginia Department of Health Emergency Preparedness and Response program partnered with six state agencies and West Virginia University to deliver a key training program via videoconference.
West Virginia University routinely delivers the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) "Emergency Planning for Special Needs Communities" course to organizations within the northern West Virginia community. Topics covered include communications and emergency information, sheltering and mass care, transportation and evacuation, human services, medical management, and congregate setting recovery. The course is designed for planners and community-based organizations, and one of its main goals is to help these professionals understand that outreach to special-needs groups is one of their responsibilities. The course typically requires participants to attend a day and a half of in-person training.
A planning committee comprised of various Virginia state agencies (Department of Health, Department of Emergency Management, Department of Aging, Department of Social Services, State Police, Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services), the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, and West Virginia University utilized a method of delivering the course via videoconference. The course was adapted to be broadcast from one location to multiple classrooms in order to promote discussion between the instructor and the multiple classrooms and between the classrooms themselves through two-way audio and video. The use of videoconference shortened the course to one day. It would also reach more people and reduce the need to travel a significant distance to take the course. An overarching goal of the course was to bring together emergency response planners and special needs organizations to work through scenarios that they could encounter during an emergency.
Committee members adapted course materials and instructor training to the new format. Training sessions with the course instructor and facilitators were held a day prior to the course. The course was held via videoconference on June 11, 2009, and attracted 212 participants across Virginia. The in-person course is generally capped at 40 participants, but the availability of the videoconference course in many locations across Virginia assured that it reached many more planners. Each participant also received materials designed by West Virginia University specifically for the videoconference course.
The videoconference course was broadcast at 27 locations in Virginia. One instructor was needed for the location from which the course was broadcast, and course facilitators were needed for each of the 27 locations. The instructor delivered course content and answered questions from a main location, while facilitators were on hand at each satellite location to guide group activities. Training sessions for facilitators focused mainly on how to facilitate discussion between a large group and the instructor over videoconference, but the sessions also provided a review of the course content and guidance on how to distribute course materials. Each site also required someone on hand to set up and manage the audiovisual equipment, as well as personnel to handle logistics (sign in sheets, restroom and fire exit locations, etc.).
Presenting "Emergency Planning for Special Needs Communities" via videoconference had significant benefits for participants and their communities. Holding the course in different locations meant that local planners attended the course together and worked with special needs organizations that would be part of a response effort. Class groups across the state also functioned collaboratively; participants with differing expertise or experience were able to answer questions posed by other groups. Lessons learned included having a back-up plan in case the videoconference equipment failed, training back-up instructors, and involving an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter or Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services to caption everything that is said for deaf/hard-of-hearing participants.
Planners in Virginia and West Virginia delivered basic course content that had been part of an emergency response curriculum for years, but their method of delivery was innovative and addressed the pressing needs of local communities. Not only did course participants learn valuable information about responding to populations with special needs, but they did so in the company of partners with whom they would be working closely in a response scenario. Switching to a technological mode of delivering information made taking the course more convenient for participants, yet it also helped to bring many different partners together at the local level and connected emergency response groups across the state.