You need not look back further than several months ago, when a 70-car pileup on I-35 highlighted the need for more volunteers to help in emergency response situations in the county.

Whether it’s a huge vehicle collision event, a tornado that has destroyed homes or a hazardous materials leak that forces an evacuation of residents, communities are coming together to take care of their neighbors by forming Rapid Action Teams for Shelters (RATS). These RATS are usually associated with a shelter within the community and are on-call to help get their neighbors out of harm’s way.

Keith Morgan, Story County Emergency Management coordinator, said, “We have had to evacuate residents from their homes multiple times for events like large apartment fires or natural gas leaks. In these situations, it may be late at night or cold outside, and having a designated shelter and RATS to staff the shelter is a phenomenal resource that allows first responders to focus on the incident and ensure the survivors’ needs are met.”

Members of Grace Evangelical Free Church in Huxley recently completed a training for RATS, the third such team in Story County. In addition to Huxley’s team, the cities of Nevada and Story City also have trained RATS teams.

Morgan said while the American Red Cross helps to provide disaster sheltering services, it may take hours to mobilize their resources, so establishing RATS is an initiative underway in Story County to ensure that if a shelter is needed, it will be set up as soon as possible.

The 70-car pileup this past February highlighted the need to work with First Christian Church in Ames to develop a RATS team to support the community, and closures along I-35 near Ames. Emergency officials would also like to see another team trained in eastern Story County.

When the shelter needs to be activated, the RATS will unlock the building, turn on the lights, turn on the heat or AC, start the coffee, receive and set up lightweight cots, welcome and register people who need the shelter, and then hand off full operation of the shelter to Red Cross when its team arrives. While this may seem simple, there are a lot of tasks that must be completed to ensure the shelter is well-organized and safe. Screening shelter residents to determine if they have special needs, having full accountability of who is in the shelter and setting up the cots in a safe and organized manner are but a few of the issues RATS are trained on.

Said Morgan, “We get a lot of spontaneous volunteers during disaster, and we appreciate their assistance, but the people that really make a difference during an emergency response are the volunteers that have taken the time to learn some specialized skills. These RATS allow us to assign them this mission and know it will be done correctly in a safe manner. Sheltering is a task we couldn’t just give to spontaneous volunteers who have not been trained.”

The Story County Coalition for Disaster Recovery (CDR) and the American Red Cross are partnering in the new RATS program to train local citizens to learn how to set up and open the emergency shelters. Also, RATS will receive annual training and exercises.

The Story City RATS, a group of members of Harvest Evangelical Free Church, were trained there in April 2017 and participated in an exercise in May 2017 that tested the RATS concept. “The RATS, plus other volunteer organizations that are part of the Coalition for Disaster Recovery (CDR), came together quickly, and skillfully put into practice what they had learned,” said Betty Boccella, CDR coordinator. “Within an hour and a half, the volunteers established an emergency shelter. More importantly, the team was challenged with some difficult situations they would face operating a shelter, such as accommodating people with special needs or handling unaccompanied minors.”

Boccella said the Huxley and Nevada teams — Nevada’s team is made up of Memorial Lutheran Church members, as the church has historically been designated as a Red Cross emergency shelter — are scheduled to participate in a similar exercise to the one in Story City this June. “They will translate skills learned in the classroom (during their initial trainings) into practical experiences,” she said. These exercises, Boccella added, will be followed by additional RATS training on “mental health needs of shelter clients.”

The RATS program is the first of its kind in the State of Iowa. Boccella said, “This is just one example of how volunteer organizations within communities can come together to be able to meet residents’ needs before, during and after disasters. While this is some great progress, we have other projects the Coalitions for Disaster Recovery would like to tackle when we get more agencies on board.” She mentions things like pet sheltering or debris clean-up as some of the other things.

At the end of the first phase of RATS project, Boccella said the county should have five trained teams that will be asked to serve all the communities in Story County.

“Each community needs to do their homework and make sure they have arrangements with a local organization to use their building as a shelter so a RATS team can quickly deploy and activate a shelter in (towns without RATS teams of their own). Unfortunately, we have limited resources after phase one,” she said, but noted that CDR will evaluate the need to build more teams versus conducting other disaster preparedness activities as it moves forward.

For more information about RATS, contact the Coalition for Disaster Recovery at


What does it take to become a RATS volunteer?

• A desire to serve your local community when needed most — after a disaster. The coalition has the need for organizations to fill diverse disaster response tasks like debris cleanup, pet sheltering or social media communications.

• A need to be willing and available to be called any time, day or night, at the time of disaster.

• The ability to pass a background check. While not required at this time, the checks are expected to become part of the process in upcoming months.