image_pdfimage_print, Va. (WAVY) — In disaster situations, emergency responders are often the first ones at a scene. But how do many of them learn how to react?

Nearly 500 people from across the country are spending the week in Alabama for the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) training program. It’s one of two training sessions the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services is holding this year. The program is housed under the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

Two medical professionals from Norfolk are attending.

Elsbeth Thurston is a pharmacist at Sentara in Norfolk. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, she knew she wanted to get involved in disaster response. She said, “It’s really nice to know that I’m prepared.”

This week, she joins nearly 500 other people, including a nurse from Sentara, at a FEMA center in Anniston, Alabama. They’re going through an extensive training program that gives them the ability to test their skills on patients who are not actually in the middle of an emergency.

Thurston said, “It’s definitely a more complete training.”

She says the training facility has all of the equipment that a hospital has, but the different surrounding can create its challenges.

“Looking at all of the different types of equipment that our team can carry, and going through it piece by piece on how to use it, how to set it up, and then we’re going to end the week with a field exercise,” said Thurston.

She’s been part of the National Disaster Medical System team for 11 years and has been on four deployments. One that sticks out the most is responding to Hurricane Isaac, because she had to care for hospice patients.

“It was really interesting to provide comfort care to those patients, because that’s not something we normally do,” Thurston said.

But training like this helps her and her team prepare for the future.

The 5,000 people in the NDMS can be deployed during a disaster situation. They’re organized into 80 groups around the country. Local pharmacist and nurse participating in disaster training