Disaster in the Badlands

Local officials meet with family members of the victims at the set up family information center in the mass fatality exercise. Photo by Zak Wellerman

Local responders test skills in mass fatality exercise

Emergency management and law enforcement agencies across the western North Dakota region came together for an exercise to prepare for a mass fatality incident.


The Herald


On June 8, over 20 area agencies practiced how to respond to the situation with multiple deaths involved. The exercise titled “Disaster in Badlands” took place in Little Missouri State Park campgrounds in Dunn County.

Mike Smith, Williams County emergency manager, said he performs multiple exercises similar to this to practice important skills in handling emergencies.

“As emergency managers, we like to help each other,” Smith said. “Hopefully this never happens, but if it does we’re ready.”

Preparation, communication, interactions and equipment are all tested in practice scenarios, he added.

In the scenario, kids were driving from Medora to the campgrounds to visit friends while under heavy fog conditions the night before. After searching all night, agencies respond to the vehicle crash where they find all kids deceased.

Those not at the campgrounds responded to the situation and collaborated from the Dunn County Road Department building in Killdeer.

The full-scale exercise included incident command, firefighters, ambulance, local law enforcement, public information officers, family information center and local and state emergency management. In the situation, Dunn County Chief Deputy Matthew Hegstad and coroner Kirk Roll were the incident command.

There were also actors portraying distraught family members to practice working with grieving people concerned about their loved ones.

Officials from the Southwest District Health Unit were brought in to assist in mental health concerns both from the victims’ families and responding officers.

In an actual incident, the family information center would be away from the other ongoings, such as a hotel or church, to avoid families getting the wrong information. The mental health professionals will help the families cope with the situation.

One of the groups participating at the scene of the incident was Killdeer Area Ambulance.

Katie Elwood, a paramedic, found it interesting to see an incident command in a situation and said it’s important to work on mass fatality incident.

With experience in both real and practice incidents, Elwood said the exercises are comparable to real life.

Kara Cannady, an emergency medical technician, had not been a part of exercise prior to this one. She enjoyed the learning opportunities the most.

“It runs smoother when everyone learns their place. People learn the different roles they have to play and communication is huge,” Cannady said.

Smith said this exercise allows people to work with all aspects of disaster and fix any communication issues between agencies.

“It’s great they’re taking the time to do this. It shows their dedication to the community by being here,” he said.

After the exercise, emergency managers and other officials will look at what went right or wrong with a corrective action plan. This will allow them to see what can be changed for the better.

Smith has done numerous exercises similar to this both in North Dakota and Oklahoma. He will have three more exercises in June.

The following groups participated in the mass fatality exercise: Killdeer Area Ambulance, Halliday Ambulance, West Dunn Fire Department, Killdeer Police Department, Dunn County Sheriff’s Office, Dunn County Coroner, ND State Health Department, ND Department of Emergency Services, Highway Patrol, Arnegard Police Department, McKenzie Sheriff’s Office, Mandaree Fire Department and the Dunn County Commission.

Emergency managers from the following counties and areas participated: Williams, McKenzie, Mountrail, Adams, Grant, Hettinger, Stark, Billings, Slope, Golden Valley, Burleigh, Dunn, Bowman and Tribal MGRs from Sioux and TAT.

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