When we think of the term all-hazards, images come to mind of expansive incidents with vast resources being distributed to handle any problem that arises. These resources are often large numbers of specially trained personnel and unique equipment.
Very few small departments, many of which are volunteer-staffed, have the ability to field such assets. Despite this, they’re not exempt from the responsibility.
Fire departments are known for being the catch-all for emergencies. If the cat is up a tree, if Timmy is stuck in the well (thanks for letting us know, Lassie), if a tornado sweeps through town, if methylethylinstantdeath is leaking from an unknown container, who is called? The fire department!
Just because your resources aren’t comparable to those of a large metropolitan area, your department can’t just say “Sorry” and hang up.
Let’s be clear what this means.
Think of the typical resident you protect. What’s their expectation of response for different events? They probably expect that you’ll respond if a house is on fire or if there’s a vehicle accident. And that you’ll to so many other possible scenarios they’ve seen us respond to in the past with regularity.
If you’re from a locality with small resources, they probably don’t expect you to maintain a dual axle, custom-built, tractor-drawn, 10-man-cab apparatus just for your trench-rescue equipment.
What should they expect and what should we communicate to them?
Whether you’re the largest or smallest department, it’s important that you offer a clear vision to your constituents as to what you can and can’t do. This fosters an excellent relationship and offers the least chance for disappointing your customers.
If we can’t attend to the needs of a certain incident, we have an obligation to let our community members know, but our responsibility doesn’t end there. We should also let them know that even if we can’t mitigate the emergency, we’re the source for finding out who will. All-hazards response isn’t about having all the resources; it’s about knowing what to do when you don’t.
How can you prepare your community for these situations? As a member of the IAFC, you’ve already taken a tremendous step forward. Networking with and understanding the capabilities of other departments is key to being prepared.
Along with that, reach out to your state and regional fire associations. Ask what others would do if they were faced with the same issue. Who would they call?
Along with association networking, get to know the locality nearest you that has a larger capability. Perhaps take an hour and talk to one of the battalion chiefs assigned to the district closest to you.
Introduce yourself and let them know your concerns. What would they do? What is the process for sending equipment and people if you were to call? Is there any way you can train together or you could just sit in on one of your trainings involving different types of emergencies?
Fostering these relationships will pay off dividends when an actual emergency arises.
Perhaps most important is understanding that assets are available. As a fire-department leader, you have to take the initiative to understand the process involved in accessing them.
It would be nice to think that all we have to do is place a call to the state emergency-operations center, but that’s not always the case. Find out from your area who’s responsible for emergency management. Get to know those people and ask them the process for getting help. Ask to be involved in any future planning addressing those issues.
Most small departments are well aware of their limitations. Calling for mutual aid when responding to a working structure fire is often the norm. That ability didn’t just magically appear one day. It took time and effort, probably many years ago, to ensure a process was in place. The same mindset should be used by resource-limited departments when thinking of all-hazards preparedness.