Nearly 200 Red Cross staff members, volunteers and instructors from around the country are in Pratt this week, preparing for what they hope won't happen.

When a disaster strikes, good-hearted people will show up to help. While everyone with a sincere desire to help is welcome, they're more efficient if they're trained to deal with issues like mass feeding, setting up shelters, providing emergency relief and helping people navigate the maze of government agencies that can offer assistance.

That's what an advanced disaster training program this week at Pratt Community College is all about. The Kansas Disaster Training Institute, sponsored by the American Red Cross, is offering more than 50 courses to build the disaster response capacity in the state and let partner agencies learn from each other before disaster strikes.

"Disasters are not the time for introductions, so we're bringing all the players to the table before something happens," said Donna Meier Pfeifer, executive for Cannonball Trail Chapter in Pratt, who wrote a grant to help cover expenses. "We know that when organizations approach a situation with realistic expectations, the end result is a better recovery for the people we're trying to help."

The American Red Cross used to offer an annual disaster institute, according to Beverly Morlan, regional chapter executive, but she said this week's program is the first of its kind in at least 10 years.

The 2007 tornado in Greensburg makes Pratt an ideal place to hold a conference to teach people about responding to a large-scale disaster and to learn from those who experienced it first hand. Ray Stegman, emergency management director in Greensburg, and Chancy Smith from Chapman, were keynote speakers Tuesday night.

In addition, Pratt is easy to get to and Pratt Community College is a wonderful facility to accommodate 170-some participants, Morlan said.

Most are from Kansas and some from the immediate area, but participants have also arrived from Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Wyoming, Texas and Ohio. Some are long-term staff members or volunteers who have experience to share, and others are young people who bring a fresh perspective.

The program began Monday morning and will continue through Saturday evening, with classes from 8:30 to 5, and evening presentations that are open to the public. Tonight's presentation is "Partnering to Deliver Mass Care — A Faith-Based Initiative — FEMA" at 7 p.m. in Carpenter Auditorium.

House fires are the most common disaster to which Red Cross staff and volunteers respond; however, if it seems that weather-related disasters are becoming more frequent, they are.

"It's understood by researchers that more costly disasters are occurring," said instructor Dante L. Gliniecki, statewide volunteer coordinator for the State of Missouri.

Part of the reason has to do with global climate change; also population on the country's three coasts, vulnerable to storms, and in large population areas is increasing. In addition, today's lifestyle is dependent upon technology, making timely restoration of infrastructure important.

Mike Pickerel, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had another explanation.

"As people become more specialized, they are more dependent upon specialists to help them."

Emergency response is about relationships, he explained, and about partnering. FEMA was invited to help with instructing as part of the partnership process.

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Morlan indicated that a large-scale institute such as the one this week could be repeated in Kansas perhaps every other year. It might not always be held in Pratt, although she praised the community and the helpfulness of college staff, and named Pfeifer as a "catalyst" in making the institute happen.