Emergency Experience for Writers

I’ve been working in emergency preparedness for about eight years now, and writing seriously for the past year and a half. Those worlds seem very separate and different. But they accent each other in unexpected ways sometimes.

I’m in a critique group called the Denver Fiction Writers,  and we critique each other’s work every Sunday, that we submitted the previous week. This work can be short stories or novel chapters. In my admittedly short experience writing, I still have some observations to make about necessities for all writers. One of them is research, research, research. This can be difficult sometimes, depending on what it is we need to research for our story.

Since the advent of the internet, research has become a billion times easier than in the old days of shadowing the world of the character you were writing about. Now if I want to write a story from the perspective of a one-armed radioactive chicken-plucker from Lithuania, it is almost certain that no matter how bizarre or specific the topic or point of view, someone somewhere has posted it on You-Tube or Wikipedia or some other address on the world wide web. The web truly is world-wide with possibly more data available to people’s fingertips in an hour, than people had access to in their entire lives a few decades ago. It began as a river of information that turned into an ocean. And it is one that I make use of as much as anyone. In fact, as I have recently discovered with my daughter, it is now acceptable for children to make use of it for science reports and other academic pursuits, it has become so mainstream. I remember when something you got off the internet ‘didn’t count’ for school research homework. Yes, I’m getting old.

However, one thing I have discovered is that nothing can replace the weight of actual experience. Whether or not a police officer is a good writer depends on the police officer and what he/she likes to do on the side, but the fact is that no one can write about police work with the same authority as someone who does it every day. Can writers run and try out for the police academy when they want to write a short story involving crime?  Not usually. However, there are fun things that one can do to increase experience not gained through reading on a computer. For that specific example, your local police station will tell you that you can go on ride-alongs in your district.

But one thing that has been indispensable in my job, and is available to anyone who wants to learn more about disasters or emergencies and the workings of the agencies who handle them, from public health, to local emergency management, is participating in exercises.

Most urban areas have them, and depending on the types of exercises, you don’t have to be a local responder to take part. Many of these exercises call for volunteer victims. If it is a decontamination exercise, you have the opportunity to get into your bathing suit and ‘be contaminated’ by whatever they have in the scenario, and then be deconned to assist the local hospital to figure out what to do with you. If it is a medical surge exercise, you have the opportunity to get made up like a zombie apocalypse victim or victim from a horror flick, complete with dripping gunshot or axe wounds, and let the local EMS transport you where the hospital then triages you. Or you can be a hysterical parent of one of the ‘victims’. In terms of the role-play, it’s like being in a grown-up game of Dungeons and Dragons, except far more real.

Last Friday, I participated in one of our local exercises, and one of my volunteer victims should have won an Oscar. I won’t go into the details of the exercise, but it dawned on me how valuable an experience that was, not only for us emergency preparedness and response folks, but also for citizens, and other people who want to get a sense of how the system works from the inside. It is a terrific and fun opportunity for writers to get to know local emergency response procedures and what things might look like in an emergency of various sorts.

So the next time you want to write about a disaster in your book, or even a local emergency, look up your local emergency management office. It’s something you should know anyway, since you should be familiar with your counties’ emergency operations plan. Their contact information is available on the internet. Or call your local police or sheriff’s office, sometimes they are one and the same in rural areas. Ask how to get involved in exercises as a volunteer in your area and help out emergency preparedness and response personnel, and get really cool experiences for your stories at the same time!

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