When disaster struck and 80-year-old Irene arrived at a Red Cross shelter, she and her caregiver had to make sure all her needs were met. Irene has Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and a severe peanut allergy - all things the volunteers staffing the shelter needed to watch out for.
Thankfully, Irene's ailments aren't permanent. Once the Red Cross dismantles the mass care shelter at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, she'll shed her diseases and go back to being 17-year-old volunteer Payton Gentry.
Gentry is one of about 100 people helping the Red Cross and other agencies - including the National Guard - put on the Vigilant Guard 2015 exercise. The training, which includes events across the state, simulates disaster situations in order to help local, state and federal organizations prepare for real catastrophes.
The Red Cross' mass care shelter is meant to match up as closely as possible to what would happen in the case of a real disaster. Volunteers pretended to be elderly, disabled or injured in order to help workers know what to do when faced with the same situations in real life.
"Disaster sheltering is the primary responsibility of the Red Cross, and so we thought this would be a great opportunity for us to not only help work with our partners, make the disaster exercise more realistic, but also provide training," Dan Williams, executive director of the Red Cross serving northern Minnesota, said.
Other events are happening elsewhere in the state, including exercises at Camp Ripley and in St. Paul. A simulated oil-train derailment was planned for Tuesday on Rice's Point in Duluth.
Gentry, along with her friends and fellow volunteers Katelyn Stebner and Sarah Welle, made the most of their time as volunteers. Welle acted as "Irene's" caregiver and Stebner pretended she had narrowly escaped a wildfire that killed her parents.
"It was hard the first time I got interviewed," Gentry said. "I couldn't stop laughing ... but then, I don't know, it started to get easier because you're starting to have fun with it, and I have an imagination for this."
Other volunteers provided different training opportunities. Jack Bender, who is hearing impaired and communicated through an interpreter, said his participation in the event allowed workers to learn how to help deaf people.
"I have to say that they did a really good job handling our communication needs," Bender said. "There were a few Red Cross workers that knew some basic sign language and finger-spelling, and they were able to help start triaging ... until the interpreter arrived."
Mark Doble, the Red Cross' regional mass care lead for Minnesota, said exercises like this are important, because they allow people to learn real-life skills without the pressure of an actual disaster.
"People actually get to work the roles, so that way when it does happen they're more familiar with it," Doble said. "If they want to get into our management and leadership they can try it here when there's no screaming clients ... that way it's second nature."
Only two Vigilant Guard events happen each year. The Minnesota simulation has been planned for three years, Williams said. He thinks Duluth is a good location for the practice because Red Cross workers from the state have recently been sent to Texas to help with floods and Idaho and Montana to help deal with forest fires.
"(The simulation) really keeps it front of mind," Williams said. "It reminds you that the people that are living there are going through what we are simulating here. It could happen here."