Lending a helping hand during the Aurora Bridge Bus Collision

By Ashley Kelmore

One of the challenges when you work on emergency response plans is that you don’t know when—or even if—your plans will be put into action. I work on plans for emergencies that involve large numbers of injuries or even fatalities, so on one hand, I hope we don’t have to activate them. But it definitely gives me peace of mind to know we’re ready.

So when we heard about the Aurora Bridge bus collision in September, within minutes, Public Health Preparedness staff opened up response plans and partnerships that have been built over the years to help the community during this difficult time.

Carina Elsenboss, Director of Preparedness, and Nick Solari, Emergency Response Planner, coordinating with Jill Watson from the City of Seattle's Human Services Division.
Carina Elsenboss, Director of Preparedness, and Nick Solari, Emergency Response Planner, coordinating with Jill Watson from the City of Seattle’s Human Services Division.

Tracking the injured

The Aurora Bridge bus collision resulted in dozens of people requiring hospitalization, with the injured transported to eight different hospitals.  We knew that tracking where the injured were sent would be a big concern. We reached out to the Northwest Healthcare Response Network, our partner organization that coordinates the healthcare system during emergencies, including management of the state’s bed and patient tracking system.  Their staff made sure that the information on patients was accurate by making phone calls and in some cases visiting hospitals to verify the list. That list would prove critical in reuniting families.

Helping families find injured loved ones

Imagine hearing on the news that there has been a terrible crash and realizing that your loved one might have been there. How would you find out if your loved one was among the injured? How would you find out where that person was sent for treatment? A natural first instinct is to start calling hospitals, but this can be onerous if there are at least eight different hospitals that you’d have to call, especially if you’re under stress. And it can be difficult for the hospitals to deal with the massive call volume.

A call center can both provide a single number for families to call and take some of the burden of answering calls off of the hospitals. Thankfully, we have been working with King County 2-1-1 for years on a plan for setting up a call center for public health emergencies. By the evening of the collision, 2-1-1 staff were able to take calls from worried family and friends while I reviewed the patient list to determine if their loved one was among the dozens who were transported to hospitals. I made it home around midnight, but the 2-1-1 call takers worked through the night, connecting families until they closed down after 30 hours of operations.

Connecting families to support services

Family Service CenterMost of the affected families were from outside the region and many were overseas. Once they located their loved ones, they had to make plans to come to Seattle. As part of the Seattle Emergency Operations Center, we worked with Seattle Human Services Division to set up a Family Services Center to meet the needs of these families. They needed plane tickets, places to stay, a way to get around, and someone to accompany them if they didn’t speak English.

After just a few hours of planning we had a location donated by the Washington State Convention Center and partners committed to staff the Center, including the Seattle Police Department, American Red Cross, North Seattle College, and the Public Health Reserve Corps. The Center was open for three days, assisting affected families. Many continue to receive support via Seattle Human Services, which is working with the Salvation Army on longer-term needs.

This was a challenging incident, but it reminded us that the work we are doing today is vital in preparing us for the emergencies that may come tomorrow. And we are thankful for all of the amazing partner organizations and volunteers who were ready to pitch in and help during the community’s time of need.

Ashley Kelmore is a Planning Manager for Public Health Preparedness Section.