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Fire & Life Safety: Being All-Hazard Ready

In December 2003, the Gilmore Commission issued its fifth report; the commission studied public-service readiness to the tragedy of 9/11 and other possible future natural and manufactured disasters. This report suggested a major shift in the way public-safety services are performed, from a discipline-specific incident response and command framework to an all-hazard, integrated multiagency approach to incident management.

The commission coined the term New Normalcy to depict this change in incident management philosophy. The investment in this New Normalcy is not in equipment, but in people and technologies, with a strong emphasis on forming coalitions with other fire and emergency agencies and collaborating with internal and external stakeholders.

Risk Management

Integrated risk management is a powerful tool. It requires that all internal and external stakeholders are identified and involved in the decision-making process. It also requires that all decisions are data-driven. In addition, there must be empathy toward other stakeholders.

Operational and tactical decisions are made at the lowest unit levels, while strategic planning and administration decisions are conducted at higher levels in management. To determine the stakeholders' anticipated services requires identifying all possible hazards in a worst-case scenario context, along with their associated risk. This is then reported to a committee and followed up by a needs analysis.

The Commission on Fire Accreditation International is a source for measuring and evaluating fire and nonfire risk by using an open empirical approach to community risk and standards of coverage, developing a strong strategic plan and through a self-assessment process that identifies over 200 performance indicators, creating a process of continuous improvement.

Mutual Aid

A strong mutual-aid system is crucial in a department's all-hazard readiness plan. Most departments have agreements with neighboring fire departments and industries to meet their automatic- and mutual-aid needs, but may not participate or know of regional and state-level mutual-aid systems. The IAFC's Emergency Management Committee has helped states develop the intrastate mutual-aid systems that provide coordination and oversight to each state program.

External Stakeholders

External stakeholders should not be viewed as victims, but as partners in an all-hazard environment. Some partners need more help than others do, but many of these external stakeholders can be true assets in a catastrophic disaster.

This was learned firsthand during Hurricane Katrina. I was in command of the area of the city where some of the worst flooding occurred. It was an area were several hundred feet of the 17th Street Canal breached. The New Orleans Fire Department was not trained in water rescue, nor did it have the resources and appropriate equipment to perform water rescues operations.

I witnessed flat boats operated by civilians, taking on as many residents as they could possibly fit, sometimes capsizing a boat. There was a limited amount of coordination during the water-rescue operations. I also witnessed a water-rescue team of two rescuers from another state department save only one resident.

The rescue of a majority of New Orleans citizens was performed by these courageous volunteers. These volunteers didn't receive any support from FEMA. I can imagine how differently and effectively this scenario could have been if an organized, incident-controlled and command structure with support services had been implemented.

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program educates external stakeholders in a variety of activities. They engage to prepare and respond to disasters with a basic set of skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations. Following an event, CERT members can help others stakeholders when professional responders aren't immediately available.

Some emergency managers and fire services leaders involved in CERT perform a preliminary damage assessment of their neighborhood. This provides for a swift and accurate presidential disaster declaration to gain needed resources and assistance.

When external stakeholders are excluded from the solution, they may use chainsaws and other equipment in an uncontrolled effort, and potentially become victims themselves and require resources that are already in short supply.

Strong Codes

The International Code Council and the National Fire Protection Association both produce a family of model codes that are applicable anywhere in the United States and Canada. In recent years, codes have become dynamic partially because of new and old (but proven) technologies, the growing use of performance-base, residential, new green and energy codes, and the need to construct buildings to withstand natural disasters.

Strong coalitions among various disciplines and industries have come together to correlate terminologies and use common structure in the various codes, making codes more users friendly. The Build Strong Coalition, consisting of over two dozen organizations, is urging Congress to pass the Safe Building Code Incentive Act. This would allow states that adopt and enforce recognized model building codes for residential and commercial structures to receive an additional 4% of funding in post-disaster grants.

Participating and advocating for model building codes is another way to prepare a community for all-hazard readiness and use forms of community risk reduction measures,  such as:

  • Mitigation measure of reducing heavy fuel loads near housing or building runoff zones to prevent damage from flooding
  • Educating the public and elected offices on day-to-day hazards and seasonal risk and exercising emergency plans with all stakeholders
  • Annual inspection and updating preplanning information of all commercial structures is of great value in establishing damage assessment values as well as much needed emergency-response information

Incident Management

One of the results of the Gilmore Commission's report was the adoption of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS should be viewed as a process of continuous improvements in best practices. NIMS documents and incident action plans should be incorporated into daily operation so when the need arises, everyone feels comfortable using them.

The items above are only a few suggestions in maintaining a department's all-hazard readiness. Ten years ago, the Gilmore Commission presented the industry with a new challenge to integrate incident management into a multiagency approach. This philosophy in incident management has caused a paradigm shift in public safety from the traditional approach, discipline-specific incident response and command framework.

This New Normalcy era will require personnel to develop skills in interpersonal communications, learn new and emerging technologies, become proficient in analyzing and presenting data and become more proactive in risk-reduction measures. Departments should become part of partnerships and coalitions that promote all-hazard multiagency capability. In addition, chiefs and chief officers should become active in professional and volunteer organizations that educate and support all-hazard responses.

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