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For Disaster Drill Actors, It's The Performance Of A Lifetime

Mike Moen/WNIJ

Disaster preparedness drills are designed to give emergency crews a sense of how to respond to a catastrophe. But those involved say it’s more than just a dress rehearsal. At a drill at Northern Illinois University this week, the players did their best to deliver a convincing performance.

The stage is set. Emergency vehicles, barricades and uniformed officers surround one of the entrances to NIU's Convocation Center. The performers are ready to take their places. Except one thing, there are no cameras, no overhead microphones, and no director ready to yell “action.” Oh yeah, and the actors aren't real actors.

Still, the show is ready to begin. A DeKalb police officer gets things started by walking onto a bus that just arrived from Chicago. The officer informs the riders that they were able to escape a catastrophic event in the city.

Those on board are volunteers who spent the hour-long ride to DeKalb getting into character. They were assigned names and injuries to go along with the victims they are portraying.

“I was trying to go through the debris and my hand got cut! And my dog! I lost my dog. I was trying to find him," cries Lillian Fleming, who is truly dedicated to her role.

When she is brought inside the arena to get registered, things get a little testy.

"I’m bleeding! Hurry up,” Fleming cries.

Fleming is then escorted to a waiting ambulance. That concludes her first journey through this evacuee evaluation process before she does it again under a different character. In real life, Fleming is a retired geographer.

“I’m really interested in disaster planning and how we do prepare,” Fleming said.

Back near the entrance, someone named Enrique is getting registered. He tells staff that he's suffering from stomach pains, and like his predecessor, gets quickly sent over to the medical area for further evaluation. He’s being played by Nick Bondi of Chicago, who says this reminds him of his time in the military.

“It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s different. We’ll see what happens with my next role,” Bondi said.

Almost none of these volunteers having any acting experience, nor are they given any make-up or fake blood to look the part. But officials in charge, including Earl Mashaw, want them to make it seem as if they are people who need help immediately.

“We want them to sell the role to the point that we learn something from it.”

Mashaw is the project coordinator for the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program. He says the Convocation Center is in line to serve as one of three regional hub reception centers for evacuees, should a major disaster hit the Chicago metro-area.

Just as important as it is for the volunteers to make things seem real, Mashaw says emergency response officials also have to step it up, and not just go through the motions.

“The fireman needs to play it like it’s real. That police officer needs to play it like it’s real. Have that empathy. These people just went through a traumatic experience,” Mashaw said.

Meaning no part is too small in this disaster drill.