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Emergency Medical Services: Master of Disaster: Being Ready for the Unexpected

We’ve seen a number of large disasters recently, not just in the United States, but across the world. From record numbers of tornados in April alone to flooding along the Mississippi to the earthquake in Japan to the continued terrorist threat, first responders have been significantly taxed in responding to these disasters.

While we all know that natural and manmade disasters can happen in our communities, we don’t necessarily always prepare to the best of our ability to deal with these situations. In other cases, we may not be able to afford to prepare for these disasters based on best practices. And, there are many issues to consider when dealing with disasters. Quality preparation and planning will make responding to these incidents just a little easier.

The National Fire Academy has a number of classes that address these planning and response issues. For the cost of your time and a meal ticket, three classes to consider include:

  • Command and Control of Fire Department Operations at Natural and Manmade Disasters
  • EMS: Special Operations
  • Executive Analysis of Fire Service Operations in Emergency Management

I’ve had the privilege of attending all three of these classes, and I can tell you that the content and the instructors are exceptional.

The command and control class starts out with small incidents and ends up with a large event requiring area command. I think back to a comment a classmate made that we would never see a scenario like this. The earthquake in Japan proved otherwise—an earthquake with tsunamis, which also involves mass casualties. And oh, by the way, let’s add in a couple of nuclear incidents as well.

You also learn how to better prepare and plan for disasters, and the class provides a number of takeaways you can implement back in your community to allow you to be better prepared. After two weeks of managing incidents, you have certainly learned how to “master a disaster.” The other lesson learned was to never underestimate the potential for disaster.

On the other side of the Academy, the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) offers a variety of on-campus and online courses that address preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. Classes offered include

  • All hazards preparedness and response
  • Recovery and mitigation
  • Disaster-specific classes dealing with these same issues
  • Radiological preparedness and planning
  • A whole list of ICS position-specific classes

And the list goes on and on. Again, these classes are typically offered at no cost to you other than your time; in some cases, some of these classes may be offered locally.

There are other considerations that need to be addressed in disasters. As seen in Alabama, there were a large number of fatalities and even more injuries. Is your system prepared to address this issue? Is your EMS system capable of handling large numbers of patients? Can your local hospital system? Do you have auto- and mutual-aid agreements to provide additional resources in a time of need? Have you worked with the county coroner?

EMS supplies, along with water, food and fuel, may be difficult to obtain. Your own facilities and equipment may be damaged, and your employees may have suffered losses themselves. Make sure you have current plans in place to ensure your continuity of operations. The 72-hour self-sufficiency rule applies to you as well as your citizens, and I would encourage you to be prepared to sustain your operations for seven days, not just three.

The response will eventually turn into a recovery, and this can be a very long-term event, sometimes encompassing many years. As EMS will continue to play a role in this recovery process, you may see an increase in calls for service and you may be asked to serve in more of a mental- and public-health role. The ability to adapt to your community’s needs is crucial to the recovery effort.

My former deputy chief, who was also a retired fire chief, had a saying of the Seven Ps: “Prior proper planning prevents pretty poor performance.” (I’ve replaced his fifth “p” with a more acceptable term, but you get the drift.)

In thinking about his statement and having lived through a number of different issues where I’ve seen the positive and negative results to the Seven Ps, we do have to place an emphasis on disaster planning. We have all the time in the world—right up until the disaster occurs and then it’s go time.

We can’t prevent the disaster or incident from occurring, but we can be better prepared to respond to it. And when your customers, citizens, friends and neighbors look to you to take care of them in these significant events, they do expect you to be a master of disasters.

Norris Croom III, EFO, CMO, is the deputy chief of operations for the Castle Rock (Colo.) Fire and Rescue Department. He has been with the department for 24 years and has worked in the EMS private sector as well. He’s been a member of the EMS Section since 1998 and currently serves as the section’s director at large.

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