I can’t tell you firsthand about how the storms affected Alabama and its state emergency response plan. What I can do is speak as an observer and as the IMAS technical advisor for the great state of Alabama.
Alabama has a solid plan with some dedicated folks running it. However, like any plan, it must have depth in trained people who can follow through with the plan during major disasters affecting the whole state. Alabama has been struggling to obtain this depth.
This isn’t just Alabama's problem—it’s one that’s found all around the United States. The economy has caused drastic changes in the depth of response personnel. It has also caused cuts in response staff and station closures, as well as early retirements of chief officers who have been though these type of events before and who have the expertise to handle them.
These types of disasters and sluggish responses were foretold by the IAFC and some state chief's associations to many of their members and public officials. This is what we’ve been struggling with and why we created Go Teams—to come in and help in planning a response upon request from a fire chief in need.
A disaster such as a tornado isn’t predictable, but as fire chiefs, we know the type of weather lines that can cause these events. We’ve planned and trained for such a disaster and we always hope it won’t happen to our communities.
When a line of storms such as those that hit the Southeast this spring comes though an entire state, it freezes all of a community’s resources until after the storms have moved past the area. They remain frozen until it’s determined whether you must stay and take care of business at hand or if you were spared and can send help to other departments in need.
During this particular event, the line of tornados hit as if it knew where all the key players in the Alabama plan lived. This was a true test of the Alabama State Emergency Response Plan.
As the chair of the plan passed from chief to chief as they each became affected by the storms, it eventually fell to Chief Russell Ledbetter and Chief Jim St. John.
Both of these chiefs’ areas also suffered damage. It was hard to get creditable information in and out of the area and whether additional resources were needed. I was contacted by the IAFC to try to make contact with the state though my contacts, but there was a delay since I was outside the United States at the time.
When I did get though to Chief Martin and Chief St. John, a Go Team was requested. To expedite the request, we decided to send a team that was being demobilized from Atlanta; they arrived within hours of the request.
The Alabama fire service handled the business at hand, just as we’re trained to do. Could we have done better? Probably. That’s why it’s necessary to continue meeting with all the states and learning from each other. I hope Alabama will put together an after-action report and that we’re invited to participate.
Events such as this will come again, and we will continue to handle the business at hand with little struggle as we come up with better ways of doing business.
Chief Nat Ippolito (Ret.) is the IMAS technical advisor for the states of Alabama, South Carolina and New Jersey.