Four McPherson County residents are now one step closer to being certified as disaster shelter operators.

Four McPherson County residents are now one step closer to being certified as disaster shelter operators.

The American Red Cross offered a two-session fundamentals course this month that guided participants through operations to opening, managing and closing a shelter in 72 hours. The number of certified operators in the area is now at about 15, right around the minimum number the Red Cross hopes to have on hand for emergencies.

“In any disaster, we need any volunteers, but trained people, that's much better,” Lisa Houltberg, instructor, said. “In the Midwest, so many people have so many things they're involved in, so small numbers matter.”

Andrea Clark, registered nurse and allied health instructor through Hutchinson Community College, became interested in operating a disaster shelter after Hurricane Katrina, and took the course to get re-certified and refresh her memory.

“It's good for (victims) to know there are people that are going to help,” she said. “When you have nothing, and all you have is your neighbor, it would help a lot.”

Her student, McPherson High School senior Brittany Janda took the course alongside her. She said she did it because it would be beneficial to have on college applications, and would also provide insight in trauma situations, as she hopes to become a trauma surgeon one day.

During the course's first session last week, participants were instructed on all aspects of a shelter's operations. This included finding where to house victims, determining how to set up registration and health aid, and also knowing when its time to close.

Using the knowledge they obtained, course members applied it by participating in a tabletop simulation Thursday, where they had to work together to problem solve on their own.

In the scenario involving a fictional city, an apartment fire displaced up to 250 victims. The participants then had to decide who would do what job, and how to address problems that arose, such as not having enough beds.

After they determined when it was appropriate to close the shelter, they discussed what went well and what could have been done differently.

“I liked it,” McPherson resident Sherri Warbritton said. “It was a lot of food for thought. If you've never had any experience or knowledge, the information can be overwhelming.”

But despite this, Warbritton said she plans on following the final online steps to become certified.

“I think it (the course) was a good introduction,” she said. “I had no idea what went into doing work like that. It's awesome, and definitely a lot more to it than people imagine.”

The skills the participants obtained could be used following a flood, tornado, train derailment, or other disasters that displace 20 or more people. Certified operators can be used locally and also be sent to other states in time of need.

For Pat Wheeler of McPherson, this was not the first time she had dealt with disasters. She has been working with the Red Cross all of her adult life, and even helped serve food to tornado and severe wind victims in Concordia in the 1990s. But now that she is retired from her work at McPherson Middle School, she is ready to dive in deeper.

“It was my goal when I retired to serve other people, because that's what God calls us to do. He says ‘go out and serve,’” she said. “I like helping people. Where would they (disaster victims) be without all of us (volunteers)?”

Contact Jenae Pauls at and follow her on Twitter @PaulsSentinel