AMU Emergency Management Original Public Safety

Preparing for Major Disasters Calls for Logistics and Careful Responses

By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

Each year, strong thunderstorms and tornadoes overwhelm towns and large areas of states. Some of these storms even become federally declared disasters, due to their size and impact.

These disasters occur quickly and significantly alter local emergency services’ planning, response and recovery actions. Spring is a good time to create an annual primer to prepare organizations within your community. This is especially true for command personnel who have recently been promoted to leadership positions.

New Emergency Agency Leaders Have More Responsibilities in Major Disasters

Many emergency services command personnel rarely experience a major disaster. When they do, it is often the first disaster they face in their leadership role.

For example, someone who has responded to one- or two-alarm fires and managed 10- to 15-person companies now must deal with many incidents and responders simultaneously. At the same time, a neophyte manager must collaboratively deal with hundreds of units as a unified command structure.

However, many emergency service personnel have years of experience dealing with routine events. But reacting to major disasters poses different problems. The location of the event is one such difference.

Traditionally, emergency service personnel are dispatched to an address for a specific type of call, such as a domestic violence incident at 123 Main Street or a structural fire at 345 High Street. During a major disaster, however, the areas that require first responders may not be readily apparent.

First Responders Traditionally Handle Calls in Order They Arrive, Not Areas of Worst Damage

Damage areas will vary during emergencies. For example, immediately after a tornado touched down near my home, the local fire department was dispatched to what was believed to be power wires down at an intersection. What the firefighters found, however, was an entire area damaged by the tornado.

But that was not where the most damage occurred. It was not even the most critical 911 call.

Ordinarily, departments handle 911 calls in the order in which they are received. During a disaster, the first priority will be to triage the calls and affected areas. The severity of damage is assessed by first responders even before they commit any resources.

Sometimes, choosing which resources to send to the various affected areas can only be accomplished by reassigning the responders of the first call to another location or by calling in neighboring emergency services to provide mutual aid. Neither is a good option in terms of time or respect of the community. Remember, everyone who calls 911 in a disaster believes theirs is the most important call.

Major Disasters Require Major Resources for Successful Emergency Management

The inability to build an organizational structure capable of simultaneously managing many resources is the first step to failure. Major events need major resources to mitigate them.

However, if resources arrive, but are not directed to meaningful tasks that meet the overall strategy and incident objectives, they will either just sit in a staging or be used in some way that is counterproductive to the overall objective.

Think about creating a command assistance team or an IMT. Often thought of by many as giving your command away, most IMTs and IMATs want nothing to do with commanding your incident, but rather they want to see a successful conclusion to the incident.

Most fire, police and EMS personnel carry their needed tools and supplies with them on their vehicles. But it’s not always possible to carry everything that will be needed to deal with a major emergency.

The entire logistics organization must spring into action to supply responders with everything they need in a timely manner. Responders, on the other hand, must understand the process and time constraints under which logistics people operate.

Unfortunately, forward thinking and planning is not always the norm. It can significantly delay or prevent the successful completion of the task at hand.

Failure to plan is planning to fail. If we fail to plan and train for many of the important internal concepts of disaster mitigation, we are guaranteed to fail at disaster response.

Dr. Randall 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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