Fire Departments Must Prepare for Natural Disasters

Fire departments are not immune to the destruction from weather events, yet the public expects us to be able to respond. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Some of the most important lessons learned in the fire service have come at great expense, often in the form of responder lives. Although we have a history of remarkable heroism, we also have a history of nearly unparalleled stupidity when we assert that we can deliver on commitments that are far beyond our control. Witness: natural disasters. Over the course of time, we have not done a particularly good job of learning from our past and/or we have simply ignored the lessons that our fellow emergency responders have experienced firsthand.

It is not surprising that we are prepared to “stand our ground.” What is surprising is how patently unprepared emergency service organizations are to deal with a disaster, regardless of the cause, when it strikes us. Natural disasters have the capacity to inflict unparalleled damage and, most dramatically, interfere with our ability to meet our primary mission. 

The same forces that move homes off their foundations or burn them to ashes don’t just make left turns around fire stations, sparing them from destruction. Witness Hurricane Andrew or Katrina, the severe snowstorms that struck the East Coast in 2010 and, most recently, Superstorm Sandy, and it’s easy to see that Mother Nature spares no one—not even firefighters. We cannot provide essential services to our communities when we ourselves fail to prepare for the inevitable. The question is not whether a disaster will strike, but when.

Unrealistic Expectations
You’re the station captain: look around your office. If everything was gone in an instant—training records, computers, phones, payroll systems, LOSAP records, personnel files—how would you reconstitute your station? Walk out to the apparatus bay and imagine all of the apparatus destroyed. Again, how would you provide essential services? If the members of your company failed to post for duty because their homes and families were severely affected by an event, who would respond to the calls for help? 

Leaders in the fire service, and most specifically station officers who are closely tied to their local communities, should never misinform the public about the fire service’s ability to respond during extreme weather events and other natural disasters. We may believe we’re invincible, but it is wrong for us to communicate such hubris to an uninformed and trusting public.

Since Katrina, FEMA has dramatically altered its language when speaking to the public. In 2008, when Gustav was approaching Galveston, Texas, the message was loud and clear: “If you choose not to evacuate, you will face certain death.” That is the first time I can recall hearing such blunt and honest language from a federal agency whose mission is to save lives. And that is exactly what they were doing—by educating the public so that they could make the right decisions about their safety. As firefighters, we have a similar obligation to not only echo those words, but heed them. 

Continuity of Operations
To meet our most basic obligation to the citizens we serve, it’s essential that we take certain actions. First, we must be prepared and have a plan to keep our families safe. This ranges from a home escape plan that we actually practice (when was the last time you conducted a fire drill in your own home?), to a designated meeting location away from a disaster in the event you become separated, to a long-term “this is where we will relocate in the event we lose everything” location. Ensure that you have copies of all essential documents, and cash, secured in a location away from your home.

The bottom line: Preparedness starts in our own homes. When faced with the most essential survival needs, we cannot and should not put the public ahead of our own families, but we should not jeopardize our public by being unprepared ourselves.

Second, we must develop and maintain Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs) that address the issue of how to reconstitute our emergency services organizations after a disaster. The responsibility for this does not reside with the chief alone. Station and company officers are in the ideal position to identify critical hardware, software and supporting documentation that need to be secured before an event occurs. COOPs provide a roadmap to recovery while maintaining the ability to respond to calls for service. If your department has a COOP, obtain a copy and learn your role in it. If none exists, write one. It’s easier than you might think.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, get out of the way. When a massive storm that is going to cause extensive and irreparable damage is approaching and your station is in the evacuation zone, take your apparatus, hardware, software, equipment and your people … and leave. The indecision of others should not drive our actions. Our obligation to serve should not be measured by our willingness to trade lives. Never live under the mistaken belief that it can’t happen to you—it will.