AMU Emergency Management Fire & EMS Original Public Safety

Ensuring the Right Response for Predictable Disasters

By Dr. Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

Each year, some of the same predictable disasters, like wildfires and tornadoes, occur in certain communities. As a result, the hazard analysis for those communities remains the same and it’s easier to predict how first responders should respond to those disasters.

In a recent three-day training session with FEMA’s Region 5 Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT), I could easily see that its response to frequent, predictable disasters was well organized. For instance, the organizational structure for disaster response was already determined and the lines of effort and necessary resources were already planned.

IMAT is a team that spends 365 days a year conducting this type of emergency response planning. But as first responders, we can learn from IMAT as we design training exercises and plan our disaster responses.

Related link: Changing and Improving EMS Agencies Starts at Local Levels

What Are Your Predictable Disasters?

Predictable disasters vary by community. Some communities have earthquakes, while others have tornadoes or regular floods. But no matter what the predictable disaster may be, we know that the same objectives and tasks are needed for effective response. We also know that at a certain point, response efforts will need to be converted to the recovery phase of disaster management.

In the case of an earthquake of sufficient magnitude, certain utilities will be shut off, which includes the water firefighters use. The Los Angeles County Fire Department bought large mobile water pumps for those times when an earthquake breaks the public water system and fires start as the result of natural gas lines rupturing.

For a community that suffers annual tornadoes, first responders can plan routes to allow fire and police crews to gather necessary information for damage assessments. Storms like tornadoes follow predictable paths, which makes first responder disaster planning easier.

Related link: Building the Best Possible Special Ops or Hazmat Team

What Areas Should Be Considered When Planning for Predictable Disasters?

When it comes to planning for predictable disasters, one area that should be considered is the organizational structure. Imagine that you have five fire districts in your community; your community could then be divided into five sections to match those fire districts. This approach allows fire department personnel to serve the areas they know best.

If the area of impact from a natural disaster is smaller than your community, you can use secondary lines of division ahead of the disaster. Next, you can identify areas that will support apparatus staging and logistics centers, as well as central stations that can pass out commodities like food and water.

The second area of planning should be resources. From experience, first responders typically know the types and kinds of resources that will be needed during various phases of disaster response.

For instance, image that a tornado causes roadways to become blocked. Without usable streets, no rescuers and their equipment can make it to local citizens. Consequently, task forces of fire, emergency medical services (EMS), and public works can be created ahead of time to copes with such problems.

Identifying these task forces before predictable disasters will speed up operations like initial damage assessments and road clearing. Public works personnel will know that they should use plows and bring chainsaws to meet up with the fire/EMS units.

Many heavily damaged areas will need a technical rescue or an urban search and rescue (US&R) team to search business and residential buildings. If certain buildings are occupied and collapse, then there may be a mass casualty event. Planning the distribution of US&R and emergency medical services (EMS) resources will be key to more effective and timely disaster response.

One area that often goes overlooked is volunteer management. If you have a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) or a CERT coordinator, this team or coordinator can manage the volunteers and assign tasks to them.

A failure to find tasks for volunteers will cause volunteers to try to help first responders or in the case of recent disasters, become the Cajun Navy. While organizations like the Cajun Navy are well intentioned, their competing objectives can waste precious resources after a disaster.

Plan Now for Predictable Disasters

In the midwestern states, we are making our disaster plans. What predictable disasters do you know have a high probability of occurring and what will you do to respond to them?

Be sure to write down your emergency response plans for predictable disasters, exercise them and make adjustments as needed. Making up your emergency responses before, during and after predictable disasters is unacceptable and could worsen the aftereffects of a disaster.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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