The Alabama Mutual Aid System Advisory Council was scheduled to meet on April 27, the day of Alabama’s tornado outbreak. As chair of the council, I elected to cancel the meeting due to the forecast’s significance. I also sent notice to the SERP leadership along with an updated call roster.
The initial wave of tornados came through about 5:15 a.m. with significant damage in at least Jefferson and Cullman Counties; there was minor damage throughout north Alabama.
At this point, several rescue teams were dispatched through county-to-county mutual aid. After conferring with the state EOC, we decided to activate the SERP. I began calling SERP leadership; I placed many calls but had difficulty finding leadership members whose communities were unaffected.
I reached as far south as Mobile before finding personnel to deploy to the state EOC. Madison and Decatur heavy-rescue teams were deployed to the Cullman County communities of Hanceville and Vinemont. These teams watched from the south and north as an EF4 tornado struck the city of Cullman at approximately 3 p.m. They immediately moved in to assist Cullman Fire Rescue conduct a primary search of their downtown area.
The Hackleburg, Ala., tornado (EF4/5), on the ground for 130 miles, hit our area just before Tuscaloosa was struck. The need to focus on local issues and the lack of dependable communications took me out of the SERP plan at this point.
Statewide, this event was about 16 hours in duration. It was very difficult to deploy resources because warnings were successive. It was difficult to make a decision to commit resources to storm-damaged areas when tornadoes were still on the move.
Some of What We Learned from This Storm
So what were our lessons learned?
First, we need to increase the depth of SERP leadership, and we need to focus on the inclusion of mid-level officers. With such widespread damage, chief officers were taken out of the picture.
Second, we need to thoroughly educate the fire and EMA communities regarding SERP and AMAS and continue to educate and build relationships.
What Do We Do Next
From our lessons learned, here are some proposed next steps to consider:
- There must be a continuing focus on the plan. There should not be a conference or business meeting where the plan is not discussed.
- We must recruit additional help in staffing the plan in times of emergency. We should focus on middle managers who, in times of disaster, may have more time and flexibility to enact the plan.
- We must actively and continually educate responders about available assets and the process of calling for those assets. That education must include emergency managers, public-safety responders and elected officials. We should do this by attending conferences, state meetings, county association meetings and any other gathering where this message ought to be delivered.
Ralph Cobb is fire chief of Madison (Ala.) Fire & Rescue.