Emergency Services Volunteers help make Special Olympics Games succeed

SEATTLE (July 5 2017) Matthew Cullen, National Weather Service Portland Forecast Office meteorologist provides a weather briefing and forecast during the morning’s operational briefing of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Emergency Management Task Force. (Photo by Joseph P Cirone/Released)

A 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Emergency Management Task Force volunteer, assigned to the task force medical branch’s command tent at the University of Washington, makes updates on the situation unit’s medical staff deployment status board. (Photo by Joseph P Cirone/Released)

Gail Coburn, left, Planning Section Chief for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Emergency Management Task Force looks on as planning section team members work to prepare an Incident Action Plan for the next operational period during the Games. (Photo by Joseph P Cirone/Released)

Elizabeth King, University of Washington Emergency Management, left, coordinates with other public safety agency representatives during the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. Left to right – Elizabeth King, University of Washington Emergency Management; Lt. Chris Jaross, University of Washington Police Department; Ted Buehner, 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Emergency Management Task Force Liaison Officer; Capt. Sean O’Donnell, Seattle Police Department; and Sgt. Jessica Taylor, Seattle Police Department. (Photo by Joseph P Cirone/Released)

Andrew Haner, left, National Weather Service Seattle Forecast Office meteorologist inputs on-scene real-time weather data from the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games soccer venue at Seattle University, while Dr. Blair Becker, MD, the venue’s Medical Director, right, keeps an eye on members of his medical team deployed throughout the venue, Special Olympics athletes, volunteers and spectators in the hot sun, moments after Haner determined weather conditions reached “yellow flag” levels, requiring increased caution during sporting activities. (Photo by Joseph P Cirone/Released)

Scott Preston, 2018 Special Olympics USA Games Emergency Management Task Force Operations Section Chief, right, coordinates with the crew of Seattle Fire Department Engine Company 17. (Photo by Joseph P Cirone/Released)

Robin Fox, left, National Weather Service Spokane, Wash. Forecast Office meteorologist measures on-scene real-time weather data from the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games flag football venue at the University of Washington as lead forecaster Jon Fox records the measured data. (Photo by Joseph P Cirone/Released)

Story & Photos by Joseph P Cirone
Emergency Management Group
Washington Special Olympics USA Games Task Force

The 2018 Special Olympics USA Games’ legacy is one of being among the most significant sporting events in Puget Sound history.

The games showcased the awe-inspiring abilities of thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities, modeled the ideals of inclusion among people and celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics movement.

More than 4,000 Special Olympics athletes from all 50 states and the District of Columbia competed in a variety of sports, including basketball, bowling, gymnastics, softball, tennis, volleyball, golf, power lifting, swimming, flag football and soccer at venues in Kenmore, SeaTac, Redmond, and Federal Way, and at the University of Washington, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle Center, CenturyLink Field and Seattle University.

Athletes, family members and friends also participated in festive events on July Fourth and at a Seattle Mariners baseball game in Safeco Field.

More than 70,000 spectators and 10,000 family members and friends helped cheer the athletes on and celebrate their success. The closing ceremony held on the shores of Lake Union was attended by 7,600 Special Olympics athletes, family members and friends.

Many of the delegation leaders told senior Special Olympics officials that the 2018 Games was a wonderful experience that their athletes will remember for the rest of their lives.

The tremendous success of the games and associated events was made possible by the combined efforts of more than 15,000 volunteers, including 934 highly dedicated and skilled emergency services personnel and hundreds of other public safety professionals in external agencies, some of whom traveled from distant states.

Emergency services personnel with a diverse set of professional skills, and from a wide variety of organizations, job disciplines and geographical areas contributed thousands of hours, working behind the scenes as a task force to keep the games safe, secure and successful. The task force began its operational work on June 29, 2018 and concluded on July 7, 2018.

Emergency management field supervisors, physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, athletic trainers, security officers, federal law enforcement and homeland security, local and university law enforcement and emergency management, regional emergency management and fire-rescue agencies, and National Weather Service meteorologists worked together to ensure the safety and security of the Special Olympics athletes at each sports venue.

Other emergency management professionals and support staff worked around the clock in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) providing emergency communications, conducting planning, meeting logistical needs, overseeing emergency and medical operations, coordinating with Special Olympics, law enforcement and security personnel, and conducting incident command.

Among the 77 emergency management volunteers was Gloria Rodriguez, a postgraduate student at Evergreen State, who is legally blind and needs to rely on her guide dog, “Silo.” Rodriguez worked in the Operations Section of the EOC performing tasks in a manner that equaled her peers. “I am sometimes underestimated, but my work here positively and directly benefitted Special Olympics and Silo provided morale boosts in the EOC” she proudly said.

A pre-planned event of this size and complexity spread out over a very large geographical area for more than a week parallels the impact of a disaster. There are a lot of challenges, risks and unknowns, some of which are life threatening that present themselves. Emergency management professionals are trained and experienced to develop an emergency incident action plan and coordinate the interagency resources available to handle the situations in an effective, efficient and safe manner.

Scott Preston, the emergency management business continuity program manager for MultiCare Heath System, who volunteered as the task force Operations Section Chief said emergency services volunteers worked up to 15 hours per day. “These career professionals adjusted to changing and challenging situations on the fly. They identified issues, dealt with the stress and frustrations associated with the unexpected, while quickly adapting, remaining flexible and calm,” he stated.

The need for the task force to be nimble and adapt its strategy and tactics quickly to meet unexpected situations was illustrated at the very beginning of the event.

“The opening ceremony had nearly 40,000 people in attendance, double what we expected,” said Chris Nelson, a retired federal law enforcement officer, who served as the task force’s Law Enforcement and Security Branch Director. “Traffic congestion was the main issue.” In response to the increased security and traffic concerns, Nelson increased the security and law enforcement staffing, he said.

Nelson also related the unrelated and illegal appearances of unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”) that appeared over a venue on two different occasions. “The pilots were unaware of the laws and meant no harm,” he reported.

Attesting to the professionalism and effectiveness of the task force’s planning, operations and management, Amie Dugan, vice president of organizational development for Special Olympics North America, said, “This is the most amazing EOC we’ve ever had.”

Emergency Management Group – Washington officials began pre-event planning and coordination with Special Olympics personnel in June 2016.

The advanced planning, coordination and liaison between organizations made emergency operations smoother, according to firsthand accounts and reports.

Dr. Blair Becker, a family & sports medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill in Seattle, volunteered as the Seattle University Venue Medical Director for the task force. “The amount of support and communications that happened was really impressive. It was the highest level I’ve ever experienced in my seven years doing event medical care,” he proclaimed.

The effectiveness and efficiency of interoperability among the emergency services forces was displayed when a paddleboarder fell into the water at one venue. A Puget Sound Fire Authority boat quickly assisted the person to the shore, where task force medical personnel further assisted the person.

Throughout the week, 857 volunteer medical providers attended to more than 1,200 people, most with abrasions, sprains and other minor injuries, which normally occur at sports events.

The correction of potential tripping hazards, along with proactive safety measures coordinated by the task force safety officer, combined with messaging encouraging the abundant hydration of athletes, spectators, volunteers and guests helped to significantly reduce the number of medical emergencies that could have happened.

“The quality of the medical care provided by our task force volunteers at the sports venues kept the number of patients transported to hospitals or urgent care facilities for follow-up to less than a half-percent of the total number of patients,” according to Jessie Fudge, MD, the chief activity sports and exercise physician at Kaiser Permanente Washington, who volunteered as the task force’s Chief Medical Officer.

Even with the challenges, changes, stress and long hours, emergency services volunteers benefit from the experience gained during such a large operation, according to Preston. “They are dedicated to helping others,” he said.

“I would do this job again,” proclaimed Alli Smith, resource manager for the Washington State Department of Health and Social Services Developmental Disability Administration, who volunteered as the Logistics Section Chief.

Nelson said, “This has been a great experience that I would look forward to participating in again.”

Rodriguez added, “As a Special Olympian working in the EOC has enabled me to experience joy, dignity and inclusion. It has further empowered me.”

“I am so pleased how smooth it has been,” concluded Beth Knox, President of Special Olympics USA.

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