Mass fatality incidents are becoming less of a hypothetical, and more of a reality, with each passing day for emergency personnel across the state.

Case in point, just two days after a recent south central Kansas regional exercise focused on those scenarios, a school shooting in Florida claimed the lives of 17 people.

It's a tragic situation Harvey County is not unfamiliar with, and one emergency management staff and community partners continue to prepare for — working to enhance response efforts should any event occur again in the future.

Continuing to take steps forward in that process, several county representatives took part in a regional exercise in Wichita last week focusing specifically on management of mass fatality incidents. The exercise — sponsored by the state departments of Health and Environment and Emergency Management — brought together the counties of south central Kansas to share information on their local capabilities.

For Harvey County Emergency Management Director Gary Denny, he noted it was a way to see how prepared the county is as a whole to handle mass fatalities — from treating patients to working with victims' families to getting information out through the proper channels and more.

Given Harvey County's own unfortunate experiences in recent years, Denny said it likely came in more prepared than several other counties — particularly when it comes to the recovery aspect. While that is a good sign, what he noted was even better to see was the community involvement in this regional exercise, as there were employees from the sheriff's office, health department, Newton Medical Center and even the local funeral homes representing Harvey County at the event.

"This is probably the deepest we have exercised our capabilities. We actually requested and had participation from our local funeral directors. It's a mix of public/private entities now that we're fostering," Denny said. "I think this was the first large scale, in-depth exercise where we've actually had public and private players."

Why that is of particular importance, Denny said, is because the exercise focused on how local groups can test their capabilities and identify areas they may need to address to provide the proper response in the case of an incident. Having as much representation as possible helps hone in on those trouble areas.

"Pulling all these people together further tests those capabilities, identifying weaknesses and how we strengthen those weaknesses in the long run," Denny said. "For them to understand better what their responsibility is in the response and what their responsibility is even in the recovery process enables them to further identify and embrace what their capabilities are and what they're not able to do."

On top of bringing various representatives together from across Harvey County, this also marked the first regional tabletop exercise with which the county was involved.

Denny has organized various tabletop exercises with multiple disciplines in the past year to address active shooter preparedness within Harvey County, but coming together as a region helps establish area partnerships (i.e. if local law enforcement may be overwhelmed in an incident, how it works jointly with neighboring departments) — which Denny noted would be required given the very nature of the incidents on which the exercise was focused.

"When we title an incident as mass fatality, we already know we don't have the local resources to mitigate that incident, so to develop those partnerships on a regional level, to identify those resources on a regional level and to learn how to tap into those resources within the region is vitally important," Denny said.

"It's a good opportunity to see and collaborate with some of those other counties and see what's available to us, what resources we have. When you have that many counties together communicating and collaborating, it's a great indicator of our overall preparedness, not just for an incident within your county, but within the region," said Harvey County Public Information Officer Kyle McCaskey.

Both McCaskey and Denny were optimistic that the regional exercise would benefit the county no matter the incident it faces in the future, while bringing together various disciplines both within the county and the region is something they see as a major positive moving forward and preparing for whatever the future may hold.

"Eventually, at some point, you're going to need to introduce the hospital to it. You're going to potentially need public works to handle traffic control. You may need a volunteer organization to help with recovery effort," McCaskey said. "So, as we expose more of these organizations to what we can offer here at Harvey County, it creates more of that collaboration and that knowledge base where if there is an incident we can respond as a whole community and not just as an organization."

"I feel that we gained knowledge, we gained experience as a county through this exercise. I think every time we exercise our skill sets, we perfect those skill sets," Denny said. "Walking away from this exercise, I feel we have a better understanding of what each one of the discipline's uniquenesses are, how we interface (with) those uniquenesses and work with them."