What’s in Your Disaster Plan?

As Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated different parts of the United States, we saw the challenges faced by the community and first responders play out through the media. While many areas are still working to get back to a place of normalcy, we should be looking at those challenges and asking, “What’s in my disaster plan?”

Over the years, FEMA, USFA and others have released reports, preparedness guides and lessons learned from other disasters. Each helps communities develop effective plans. Our purpose is to help you personalize your plan to better meet the needs of your people and your department.

Through a risk analysis, the local plan identifies the challenges a jurisdiction will face. You can then identify the department’s resources and needs. When developing any plan, like an incident action plan, the safety of personnel should be the first priority.

To be effective, disaster plans should be evaluated frequently, and your department should include annual training and exercises between evaluations. Few plans offer dependent-care options for taking care of the families of first responders during disaster events.

The plan is no good if it’s

  1. not going to be followed,
  2. outdated,
  3. unfamiliar to everyone, and
  4. never been trained on.

Disaster plans have been developed but not implemented because of potential overtime costs or because the “storm doesn’t look that bad.”

This lack of preparation puts the success of the plan at risk. When a storm hits, it may be too late to recall additional personnel, reassign apparatus or open an effective EOC. With a storm in progress people are less likely to leave their families. Is it possible for recalled personnel to even report for duty?

It’s one thing to put a plan into writing and another to follow it. And that’s defining when it’s unsafe for fire, police and EMS not to respond?

There are recommended guidelines, but will they realistically be followed if a high-priority call comes in from around the corner of the firehouse? Or if someone comes to the station crying for help? It’s difficult for first responders not to respond.

Be careful how you word and enforce this particular section. Cameras are everywhere. The media is always watching. Your department doesn’t want to be perceived as helping one resident but not another.

With their safety in mind, efforts must be made to rehab crews as often as possible. This means taking them out of service. Enforcing 12-hour shifts is difficult both for the department and the first responders. If crews are going to be used for extended shifts, it’s important they’re fed and rested.

More importantly, in helping to relieve their stress and anxiety, they need the opportunity to make contact with their families, so each will know the other is safe.

Chief officers need to set the 12-hour example. Often most familiar with the disaster plan, they may be used in the EOC or liaison with other local, state or federal agencies. Like the crews on the street, they too need rehab.

Disaster plans often require personnel to bring in food and personal items for a period of days. Depending on the severity of the storm and how long it lasts, feeding personnel will sooner or later become the department’s responsibility.

In your planning process, consider stocking your stations with MREs, cans of stew, spaghetti sauces, water and other items. Another option is to make arrangements with local restaurants that may not have generators. If they lose their power for an extended period of time, instead of letting the food go to waste, see if the department can use it first.

Smaller departments have incorporated shopping lists into their SOGs, preparing to feed emergency personnel. But remember that community members may seek the firehouse as a shelter of last resort, and if you can’t transport them to a shelter, their health and wellbeing becomes your responsibility.

Your plan should incorporate other lessons your department has learned. How are the stations secured? What apparatus is reassigned? What stations are prone to flooding? One recommendation is to park apparatus in front-first so that if the apparatus doors blow in, they won’t take out the windshields.

Who’s in charge of community evacuations? Is it the fire department or do all agencies work together? Is it mandatory or voluntary? How much notice do you have?

Asking people to leave their homes, no matter the danger, is difficult. In most instances, their homes are all many people have and they don’t want to leave. How your personnel are going to handle evacuations should be taught well in advance.

Communications are important. Not just with the community, but with the entire work force.

In one department’s SOG, watches and warning issued by the National Weather Service are texted to all department personnel and broadcast on the main fire-alarm frequencies. Weather conditions can change rapidly; if a department is considering the recall of additional personnel, they must be given time to prepare their own homes and families.

Finally, departments must recognize the stress that first responders have in leaving their families during disaster situations. Jurisdictions, from large to small, need to handle dependent care—attempting to alleviate stress—based on each department’s capability.

One step may be as simple as providing a number where the families of personnel can check on the status of their loved ones. Another may be to prearrange family shelter for the families of first responders only. This will help to alleviate the stress on both the family and the first responder.

Yet another may be to issue a memorandum of understanding with one department well away from your jurisdiction that will provide shelter for the families of your first responders; when the need arises, you do the same for them.

In Massachusetts, the Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills Dept. of Fire-Rescue & Emergency Services elected to make department facilities into temporary family shelters during a natural disaster or other events so designated by a chief officer. The SOG reads as follows:

Off Duty Personnel and Families Evacuated to Fire Department Facilities:

COMM Fire-Rescue understands the physical and mental stress placed on emergency personnel and their families during a disaster event. Emergency services have recognized the added stress that emergency personnel have in not knowing if their family or homes are safe and secure. COMM Fire will make every attempt to alleviate this situation. Chief Officers will evaluate immediate or impending disaster events and will decide when, and which, department facilities can be used as an emergency shelter for both on duty and off duty personnel and the immediate members of their household. Once this decision has been made:

Dispatch will text-message over pagers/phones that the station will receive the families of department personnel.

Families evacuated to department facilities shall report to the COMM Fire Headquarters (Station 1) unless informed differently. It is the intent of the department to allow off duty personnel and their families to use department facilities as a shelter only during the duration of the storm or when people are at risk. Once the event is over, and it is safe to travel, those using department facilities shall return home or be transferred to another emergency shelter.

It should be noted that many people refuse to go to shelters or leave their homes if they can’t bring their pets. If you consider developing a family shelter designated just for families of first responders, consider this also as you develop shelter locations and protocols.

Finally, if you’re not evaluating and critiquing your response and your plan, you’re doing a disservice to your department and the community you serve. Though many resources provide a template for success, your plan needs to be personalized to meet your particular needs.

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