By Randall Hanifen
The February weather events in Texas showed us that nearly the impossible can occur if you wait long enough. Most people would not have predicted a snowstorm in southern Texas, but it did happen.
While this type of unexpected weather is surprising, many communities have encountered 100-year floods and other significant disasters on a more frequent basis. As a result, many lives were lost and citizens are left wondering why emergency management professionals did not better plan for such a disaster.
The Basics of Emergency Management Planning
While many disasters come as a surprise, William M. Kramer notes in his 2009 book, “Disaster Planning and Control,” that much of the planning for disasters is the same, even though the disaster changes. Other planning documents share this same theme.
For any disaster, we must have command and control elements that actually manage the disaster. We must have emergency operations centers (EOCs) or multi-agency coordination centers that ensure collaboration between agencies is occurring in order to facilitate the public’s needs. Similarly, there must be operational planners to gather information about the disaster and determine the resources needed to deal with current and future situations.
Once the needed resource allotment is determined through the planning process, we must have logistics personnel who procure and funnel the necessary resources to the areas where those resources are needed. Finally, there must be a finance section capable of paying for all of the resources.
Also, citizens need to be properly prepared for disaster events and to make rational decisions so that they will not become victims themselves. This is a common problem during many disasters. For instance, local residents could be trapped by rising water, a building collapse during tornadoes and hurricanes, or an inability to evacuate an area in large snowstorms.
Local citizens will also need food and water, usually within a few hours. In addition, they will require dry shelters with air conditioning, heat and restroom facilities.
Emergency Management Planning Should Be Based on Community Needs and Capabilities
Citizens rely on their government systems during day-to-day life, and this reliance will not magically change during a disaster. Consequently, we must know the capabilities of local populations related to disasters.
For instance, if evacuation is the answer to a disaster and no one owns a car, emergency management will need to provide the transportation. If evacuation is needed and the roadways do not allow vehicle use, then all of the community will need transportation.
Are local citizens prepared for a mass evacuation? In the case of Texas, the lack of snowplows made the trek on roads dangerous, especially for citizens who likely did not have warm clothing in abundance for road trips.
Additionally, thought must be given to where local residents will move to become safe. For a population like Texas, it is unrealistic to expect the entire population to move to a warmer climate this week, which means that shelters powered by generators would be a more realistic solution. Similar plans should be in place for sheltering a local population for hurricanes, so that only slight adjustments would be needed to those facilities to ensure they have a heat source.
Utilization of the Declaration Process
While some of the basics of emergency management planning and resources are the same, there are limits to the available funds that enable emergency management agencies be ready for rare types of disasters. For instance, while snowplows exist in Texas (the northern portions do get snow), some citizens would be upset if the state purchased such equipment just for southern Texas.
This is why we have the disaster declaration process, so that state and federal governments can assist when local resources are overwhelmed. Many disasters are hampered due to the lack of early coordination by various levels of government. But local citizens do not care where the help comes from, only that it arrives in a timely manner.
Stick to Emergency Management Basics for Better Success
In the end, the Incident Command System (ICS), collaboration and a focus on citizen needs are the keys to successfully managing a disaster event. During any disaster – expected or unexpected – we must understand the community’s needs and strive to meet them in an expeditious manner.