SALT LAKE CITY — Cecilia Lesmes organized her team of first responders in the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake that collapsed the dome of the Capitol rotunda.
Community Emergency Response Team members began sorting through broken marble and scattered debris, looking for anyone among the many tour groups and visitors at the Capitol who may have been trapped.
Lesmes, the team's leader, calmed her nerves as she took charge of the volunteer team, and worked past the sound of screams and cries for help, suppressing the adrenaline and studying the situation.
Though the domed roof of the Capitol did not actually collapse, the Community Emergency Response Team navigated the disaster scenario in coordination with the Great Utah ShakeOut earthquake drill Thursday morning.
More than 992,000 Utahns registered to take part in the sixth annual earthquake drill, just shy of organizers' goal of a million participants statewide.
The scenario at hand, a magnitude 7 earthquake, would represent a historic disaster for Utah and a significant test to the state's preparedness.
Lesmes, an employee in the Utah Attorney General's Office, began her part of the drill from her office within the Capitol, doing a cursory check of the building before moving on to the predetermined staging area where volunteers from various offices on the Capitol campus were to meet.
Lesmes arrived to the staging area first, inheriting the responsibilities of a team leader until such time as a more-qualified team member could take her place, or until she no longer felt capable of taking on the responsibility.
She fully accepted the role of leading 10 volunteers as they were given the disaster scenario of a collapsed roof.
“I took the first six that were here and I broke them up into two teams," Lesmes said.
With three-person teams, two people began seeking out injured people and providing triage, while the third member acted as a "runner" to relay information back to Lesmes as she organized later arrivals and took notes of the situation.
"The whole deal is you go in and you scream and yell, 'If you can hear me, come to the sound of my voice, if you can,'" she said.
Team members then are tasked with helping people evacuate the building and bring them to the predetermined staging area, where emergency professionals could provide first aid and treatment.
"It is really overwhelming, and you hear a lot of people crying and screaming in pain, and it is psychologically overwhelming," Lesmes said. "That is part of your training, you see that stuff, you see a lot of stuff that you do not want to see or that you do not see on a normal basis, and you have to let that go."
She said the urge to help people in a disaster is why she took the training to be a certified member of the Community Emergency Response Team.
"Utah is lucky that we have a culture of emergency preparedness here," said Joe Dougherty, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management under the Department of Public Safety.
Dougherty said preparedness is part of Utah's DNA, noting food storage efforts and community coordination through the LDS Church and other religious groups.
Dougherty added that Utah's love for outdoor recreation has helped because many of the same supplies for camping and hiking make great survival tools.
He noted a 2008 survey in Utah that found that around 75 percent of people have some sort of emergency kit.
"Personal preparedness is so important because it takes a burden off of the emergency response community," he said.
Since Utah does not experience many natural disasters —the state ranks 49 out of 50 in the number of major disasters it experiences — drills are an important way to get ready.
"We try to learn and prepare as much as we can," he said. "That being said, we still have a long way to go."
Dougherty said the average person should regularly review their emergency preparations and consider the very likely scenario that they will be the first responder for someone else when a disaster strikes.
Dougherty said Community Emergency Response Teams, which exist in around 70 communities throughout the state, prepare bystanders to become first responders.
Dougherty and the State Emergency Operations Center staff worked from the Capitol, examining ways to oversee responses and restore government operations so authorities could coordinate relief and return the state to normal functionality.
At the National Guard base at Camp Williams, Guardsmen conducted an internal exercise, examining their preparedness in the event that an earthquake causes other dangerous scenarios, including looting or a leak at a chemical plant.
"We recognize that this is something that the military needs to be a partner of and that we bring many assets to the table," said Lt. Col. Steve Fairbourn, public affairs officer for the Utah National Guard. "Emergency responders, while they do a fantastic job, if it is a large-scale event, can and will become overwhelmed."1 comment on this story
More than 580,000 teachers and students in Utah's schools, 200,000 college and university students and staff, more than 2,000 individuals and families, as well as numerous businesses and faith groups took part in the drill. Additionally, 658 members of radio groups helped keep communication open.
Dougherty said the drill augments the emergency response, and the a goal is to ingrain the earthquake response steps of "drop, cover and hold" in peoples' minds to the same level as "stop, drop and roll" in fire emergencies.
Dougherty said there is still time for people to register their participation with the Great Utah ShakeOut, and be counted among those in the state who tested for earthquake preparedness.