Occupational Health Nursing Trainee Works With Tribal Emergency Management Council to Develop ToolKit

June 29, 2016

Jane Vaccaro

They hadn’t planned on wildfires when Jane Vaccaro decided with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation to work together. Vaccaro, an MPH student in Occupational and Environmental Health Nursing, was ready to start her practicum.  She wanted to apply her substantial experience in different kinds of nursing and as a Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) volunteer to developing a resource guide for starting MRCs within the Tribes.

An MRC is a cadre of volunteers who are trained to respond in the event of a disaster or an emergency. The MRC program is run by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. There are approximately 203,000 volunteers enrolled in 1000 units across the U.S.

Only, the wildfires in the summer of 2015 raged in Eastern Washington. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation not only lost thousands of acres to the wildfires, they lost traditional hunting and gathering grounds.

Western Wildfires
Wildfires rage across the Colville Reservation in summer 2015.

For Vaccaro, whose practicum under the Colville Tribe fell through, the wildfires underscored the impact that a disaster can have on Northwest Tribal communities who are often geographically isolated, who have been historically and economically disadvantaged, and who are culturally connected to the environment.

Vaccaro has been a nurse for several decades. She worked in emergency nursing, public health, case management, and life-care planning. When she heard about the MPH degree program in our department, she was volunteering with the Pierce County’s MRC and assisting UW Tacoma and Pacific Lutheran University senior nursing students conduct a community resilience survey.

Butch de Castro

With the help of Adjunct Associate Professor Butch de Castro who is principal investigator for a hazardous materials handling and disaster-preparedness training grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Vaccaro found a new practicum opportunity. She was hosted by the Northwest Tribal Emergency Management Council (NWTEMC) as an MRC Coordinator for unit #1273. Her practicum was supervised by Lynda Zambrano, its Executive Director.

The NWTEMC’s members include federally recognized Tribes in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Its goals are to assist Tribal members build capacity within their Tribal nations to respond to and manage hazards, terrorist or other security threats, emergencies, and disasters.

Zambrano helped found the NWTEMC in 2003 and later the National Tribal Emergency Management Council, which is organized like FEMA into 10 regions. The NWTEMC is in Region 10.

NWTEMC_logo.max-900x400“We don’t come in and run an incident for the Tribe,” Zambrano explains. “We’re not a response organization.” Instead, NWTEMC helps develop offices of emergency management and provide training in the skills and access to resources so that Tribes can manage their own incidents.

Zambrano also helped start the first Tribal MRC in the U.S.

In the work that the NWTEMC does in the field, Zambrano and member Tribes wanted to create Tribal-based MRC units that could not only help build their community’s emergency response, but would be culturally sensitive and understand Tribal sovereignty.

As sovereign nations, Tribes self-govern and enact their own laws. Tribal councils are governing bodies federally recognized that work directly with federal and state governments.

In Washington state, there are four MRCs.  One unit in the Tulalip Tribe and another in the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, and the Lower Elwha Klallam. The MRC through the NWTEMC is regional; its members are the NWTEMC’s Tribal emergency managers. The emergency managers can deploy the MRC, which includes medical and staff personnel, to assist Tribes in the Northwest.

Aftermath of the Oso landslide in 2014.

Zambrano said she will never forget the text message sent by the Chairman of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe after the Oso Landslide on March 22, 2014:  “The river is rising a foot every seven minutes. Please send help.”  The Tribal reservation is located less than 22 miles from the landslide. Telecommunications, internet, and emergency medical services were cut off, as was access to Interstate 5. In addition to the coordinated response from the NWTEMC, the regional MRC was deployed to help.

With Zambrano, Vaccaro developed a toolkit that included information and a number of resources: a handbook on how to start a MRC unit, policies and procedures, laws, codes, ordinances, Tribal resolutions, incident command, how to activate an MRC, and the Tribal government’s role.

Zambrano hopes that after the CD of the materials is available, the MRC toolkit will make it easy for a Tribal emergency manager to understand the importance of developing an MRC and for local, state, and federal partners to understand the importance of Tribal MRCs. 

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 3.35.46 PM
Lynda Zambrano

She said, “Jane did an amazing job.” Zambrano’s goal in mentoring students like Vaccaro is to help others gain a deeper understanding of Native American culture, and the challenges and differences in developing and sustaining emergency management in Tribal nations.

The MPH program and this practicum, she says, has been a great match. In addition to helping compile the toolkit, Vaccaro also held a blood drive at the annual Northwest Tribal Emergency Management Conference hosted by the Kalispel Tribe. She contributed to the NWTEMC’s social media strategy in the event of a disaster. Twitter and Facebook have a lot of advantages: they’re two-way, have a broad reach, and can connect people and resources to unmet needs.

One of the most valuable aspects of this practicum involved attending NWTEMC meetings, reflected Vaccaro, and hearing NWTEMC members share the emergency situations they have recently faced. In just little over a year, issues have included: wildfire, smoke exposure, first responder safety, floods, hazardous material spills, and avian flu.  Future issues of critical importance include the security of their “first foods” and threats from hazardous rail shipments. “The practicum really drove home what we can learn from the Tribes, and the relevance of the work we are doing in DEOHS,” said Vaccaro.

Vaccaro plans to look for a career in disaster planning after she graduates. Her “encore” career, she explains, would address the public health implications of climate change, and impacts on community resilience to disaster.  


06/06/2016 by Elizabeth Sharpe, DEOHS

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