Taking a comprehensive approach to handling disasters
On Halloween evening in 1963, a performance by an ice skating troupe at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis was interrupted without warning by a deafening explosion that threw dozens of spectators onto the ice. Public safety responders were first alerted to the accidental propane explosion by the mayor, a spectator at the performance, who ran to his automobile and used its two-way radio.
In the chaos that followed, almost all of the nearly 500 injured were taken to just two of the city's hospitals. At least 80 people died as a result of the explosion. The 11,000 spectators fleeing the scene created an impossible barrier for incoming fire companies seeking to control a fire raging within the coliseum. State and city police battled over control at the scene. The county coroner had no plan for a mass casualty incident, and uncertainty about how to handle the corpses created confusion in identifying the dead and notifying families and the media.
On-scene agencies did not coordinate their efforts or set up a command post. Police made decisions that complicated firefighting and rescue operations, and vice versa.
This tragedy, perhaps the most thoroughly researched disaster in U.S. history, marked the start of the modern era in emergency management (EM). Research on the incident by two Ohio State University sociologists, E.L. Quarantelli and Thomas Drabek, comprised the first report by their Disaster Research Center. The DRC and Quarantelli since have moved to the University of Delaware.
Most troubling, many of the problems evident in the Indianapolis incident continue to hinder emergency management efforts. However, leaders in the field have proven that significant improvements in EM are possible, and most emergency response leaders today at least agree that coordination and collaboration are essential, even if they fall short in practice.
All states now have statutes that require or empower cities and counties to create EM agencies. Technical support, administrative funding, training and supplementary personnel are available from states and from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). However, local governments must deal with certain challenges to provide successful emergency management. Often, the key is a strong expression of interest in community EM strategy by senior local leaders.
"Who is in charge here?"
Rarely is there a shortage of answers to this, the most frequently asked question before, during and after major emergencies.
In cities and counties, the elected head of government lays claim to being in charge, except in jurisdictions where professional government executives such as city managers and county executives are the ultimate decision-makers. And, while EM is rarely a campaign issue, voters do elect heads of government to make strategic decisions and implement public policy on the topic. By extension, all public employees have responsibilities associated with managing emergencies.
However, local government administrators often tend to regard EM solely as a public safety activity if they focus on trauma and dramatic property damage as the principal byproducts of disasters. This notion underestimates the types of disasters that can occur and ignores many of the characteristics of major emergencies, which frequently involve public safety assets only peripherally.
The assumption that major emergencies are merely larger-scale versions of the types of incidents that occur each day can create breakdowns and coordination failures.
Wisconsin has long referred to the EM process as "emergency government," an apt description of what the process truly entails. To manage emergencies effectively, local government officials must recognize and accept emergency government roles as well as routine government roles, and all departments should act as part of the solution.
Typically, Quarantelli has observed, disasters result in the formation of "emergent organizations," temporary, ad hoc alliances that deal with emergencies by drawing on the assets of various public and private entities without regard to boundaries. The organizations do not exist prior to the emergency and quickly dissolve afterward; their existence often is not recognized even by those who lead them.
Emergent organizations present governments with learning opportunities. Actions, policies and preparations that aid and strengthen emergent organizations can enhance the quality of response in the future. Indeed, some experts say the central goal of community EM programs should be to create a shadow emergency government that shifts into action as the core of the emergent organization when disasters occur.
DRC has found that almost any planning effort enhances the performance of emergent organizations. Thus, public administrators stand to benefit from implementing as many organizational measures as possible to aid rapid formation and strong performance of emergent organizations. Today, organizing has supplanted specific planning as the fundamental local government EM activity.
What is a disaster?
Once governments settle on who is in charge, attention often shifts to defining what comprises a major emergency or disaster. The nature of these events, though, makes such a definition impossible. A train derailment that injures 15 people will quickly overwhelm resources in a small city with a single hospital but can be easily handled by a larger city with several hospitals. Myriad variables, ranging from season to time of day, determine both the intensity and duration of major emergencies.
Consider the characteristics of major emergencies:
* Disasters are unique events of immense complexity. Failure to grasp this characteristic stands as one of the top reasons for inappropriate emergency response. Disasters cannot be equated with the incidents that injure people and destroy property in a community each day. In major emergencies, hazards typically become compounded, as in the recent conflagration in the flooded central business district of Grand Forks, N.D.
* Disasters happen with little warning – anytime, anywhere. This unpredictability presents local governments with perhaps their greatest EM challenge. A passenger train derailment is difficult to prepare for, while planning for one that occurs in rugged terrain during a blizzard might prove impossible. Unfortunately, many EM and public safety officials waste time planning for overly specific scenarios.
* Disasters can victimize the responders themselves. Many disaster plans are built on the faulty assumption that community services, systems and lifelines will be in place to support response. Circumstances emergency managers encounter when responding to incidents include utility outages, telephone-system overload, damaged transportation infrastructure and dangerous operating conditions.
In major emergencies, the number of casualties per medical technician can be far greater than usual, potentially eroding performance on the part of emergency personnel.
* A mix of natural, technological and human-behavioral factors produce disasters. A farm field that floods one year might go unnoticed by everyone except the farmer. However, if that farmer then sells the land to housing developers, the next flood will certainly be regarded as a disaster.
The media and many in government often inaccurately use the term "natural disaster" to describe non-natural emergencies. Until recently, many seemed to believe that all disasters were natural in origin. Hazardous materials spills and other incidents associated with technological and behavioral hazards formerly were not regarded as disasters.
* Regardless of cause, disasters can pose similar problems and demands. If good news exists in the EM field, it is the similarity of demands posed by disasters with varying causes. A flattened school building requires a similar response whether the damage is the result of a tornado, earthquake, bombing or natural gas explosion.
However, many officials are locked into interminable and impossible planning endeavors based on overly specific scenarios. Similarly, site-specific planning implausibly attempts to draft and implement preparedness for high-profile locations such as airports, hospitals and schools. Ultimately, the most futile preparedness mode is hazard-specific; this practice is largely scorned today.
Thus, local governments should focus their EM attention on more broad response and recovery imperatives: communications, transportation, medical, damage assessment, impact control, leadership continuity, public information, warning, finance and coordination.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter ordered the creation of FEMA, the first major step toward implementing a coherent strategy, dubbed Comprehensive Emergency Management (CEM), recommended in an elaborate study by the National Governors' Association (NGA).
Long frustrated by inconsistent response to disasters, conflicting policies among federal agencies, duplication of effort and generally poor results, the nation's governors saw a need for change. Thus, the NGA launched its study with funds from the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency.
The NGA study revealed the absence of a strategy for managing major emergencies. Events such as aircraft mishaps, train derailments, hazardous materials incidents and even criminal acts such as bombings were not regarded as disasters by much of the federal government. No attention was being paid to disaster prevention. The meaningful planning that did exist was largely nuclear-attack specific and reflected little or no understanding of how cities and counties function under emergency conditions.
The study identified nearly a dozen federal agencies charged with various specific EM missions. However, none had the mission of analyzing what happens before, during and after major emergencies, and none was charged with generating consistent preparedness initiatives or training.
NGA proposed that the federal, state and local governments implement the CEM strategy, which for the first time described the requirements for managing emergencies and the hazards that cause them.
CEM deals with emergency management in four distinct phases:
* mitigation (actions and policy that either prevent major emergencies or reduce their potential effects);
* preparedness and planning (the overall process of evaluating and researching hazards; drafting plans; preparing systems to warn, communicate and coordinate; training responders; and practicing the plans);
* response (the application of plans and systems to protect life, commerce and environment); and
* recovery (the application of plans and measures aimed at returning communities to normalcy).
CEM views the process as a cycle, with all communities standing at some point in the process at any given time. Communities most often are in the mitigation and preparedness phases. Regardless, information and experiences gleaned from response must be used to improve plans and preparedness, while findings developed in mitigation need to be fed into recovery.
"CEM is really nothing more than a practical, common-sense approach," says Steve Collier, director of the EM office at the fire department in Austin, Texas. "Still, it took several years for CEM to take hold within FEMA."
The promulgation of CEM by FEMA had been inconsistent until recent years, at least in part because federal administrations had hesitated to carry on their predecessors' policies. The hazard-specific notions of long-time civil defense staffers at FEMA complicated CEM development in the 1980s. Even today, the organizational structure and certain policies at FEMA are inconsistent with CEM.
However, the strengths of CEM overcame the government transitions, albeit in the form of Integrated Emergency Management Systems (IEMS). IEMS is the heart of FEMA's emergency management policy, particularly for programs supporting state and local governments.
The appointment of James Lee Witt, the former Arkansas state EM director, as director has profoundly changed FEMA. The first EM professional to head FEMA, Witt has battlefield experience, and his theme of "building resilient communities" arrives at a time when communities everywhere are finally beginning to take seriously hazards and the events they generate.
Also at FEMA is Lacy Suiter, a long-time Tennessee state EM director with a reputation for innovation and strong EM programming, who heads FEMA's response and recovery directorate.
Today, a CEM-oriented FEMA seeks to take decisive action when disasters occur. The emergency coordinating center at FEMA headquarters is visible on network news broadcasts, and the FEMA director is often seen briefing the White House or responders at disaster scenes. This contrasts with the response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when President Bush sent his Transportation Secretary to Florida to direct response efforts.
Incident Command System
One practical application of CEM is the Incident Command System (ICS) adopted and used by public safety agencies nationwide.
ICS, a mission-driven system for organizing and deploying resources at emergency scenes, is an outgrowth of an incident management scheme adopted as part of a southern California wildfire-management project nearly two decades ago. That project, Firescope, was an interagency effort to create a strong, comprehensive response to the wildfires that often encroach upon developed areas there.
"ICS is a strategic approach to managing incidents that really should have been part of emergency response 50 years ago," says Derrick Warner, chief training officer at the Greater Round Lake Fire Protection District in Lake County, Ill. "Once EMS and law enforcement embrace it as enthusiastically as the fire service, we will begin to reap the real benefits."
ICS is a top asset management tool at single-focus and some multi-focal emergencies, but it is not useful as a community-wide, overall EM strategy.
While at least two models of ICS exist, both take a CEM-like approach to coordination and collaboration. Many agencies with substantial experience using ICS in major emergencies now use it for minor incidents, large public events and even training.
Establishing a program
The mission of city or county EM offices is to establish and implement a strategy for emergency government. Cities and counties, acting under the statutes that call for them to create EM agencies, can employ the support offered by states and FEMA.
Large and resource-rich operating departments often view it with suspicion because of fears that the EM office wants to be the tail that wags the dog. In reality, the agency's role is to push other agencies to plan and prepare for a role in the EM strategy.
The positioning of the EM office is crucial. To accomplish its mission, the office must convey that it is carrying out the policies and objectives of the head of government. In the typical local government environment, an office with a small staff is unlikely to command the attention of large operating departments.
To resolve this, the EM office can be positioned as part of or as an adjunct to the staff of the county executive, city manager or mayor. For example, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani moved the city's EM office into his immediate organization and renamed it the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management.
A centrally placed EM office serves as a continual source of information on changing conditions and events in a municipality. Top government staff need to be aware of hazards and developments. When emergencies occur, the government head and staff shift into their emergency manager roles, relating to staffers they see and speak with every day. This working familiarity is extremely valuable.
Local government EM offices can use as a model the National Security Council, an independent entity in the executive branch of the federal government. Local EM offices would benefit from similar independence as part of the office of the government head, rather than positioned within an existing agency or department (fire department, police department or municipal planning). EM programs seen as agents of a particular operating department face an uphill battle.
Traditionally, many EM offices have played an insufficient role partly because they were regarded as oddities that did not easily fit into the government organization.
Staffing the EM office
An EM strategy and a true EM office must be formed in order to fully protect cities and counties. Municipalities with no functioning EM office implicitly choose as their EM strategy improvisation, a necessary tactical approach but inadequate as an overall strategy.
The top position in city or county EM programs requires bright, active individuals with excellent written and oral communications skills and a firm grasp of organizational dynamics. Launching and sustaining a successful EM program requires a great deal of energy, time and ability to motivate people and organizations.
Experts advise local leaders to avoid assigning EM leadership to a police or fire department manager or another city or county official by merely adding EM to his duties. This practice, unlawful in some states, invariably relegates EM to secondary status in the mind of the designee and limits the perception of the EM office as an enterprise for the whole municipality.
The Fairfax, Va.-based National Coordinating Council on Emergency Management, the principal membership organization for local government EM personnel, conducts a certification program for EM coordinators. NCCEM confers the status of "Certified Emergency Manager" on EM coordinators who meet fairly rigorous training and experience criteria.
FEMA provides many training programs, and the Emergency Management Institute, Emmitsburg, Md., offers an array of basic and advanced EM courses.
At absolute minimum, many analysts advise, city or county EM offices even in rural areas should be staffed by two full-time coordinators plus secretarial and clerical support. Beyond that, some experts advise staffing at a rate of one full-time employee per 40,000 residents. Personnel require first-rate vehicles, communications gear, desktop and portable computers and office business equipment.
Many EM programs eventually will require an emergency operating center, public warning capabilities and training facilities. The task assigned EM staffers is complex and time-consuming, and they must sell their program to virtually every recalcitrant middle- and upper-level manager. The tangible support local governments give the EM office is both functionally and symbolically important.
Statistics show that emergencies are occurring with greater frequency and intensity, a trend expected to continue. The rise results from a number of factors, including increasing population density, seismic activity and terrorism, as well as poor land-use policy and aging infrastructure.
All cities and counties experience major emergencies, many of them more than once per decade. Local officials are expected to manage emergencies with the same professionalism and competence that typifies their routine performance.
Among the most intriguing development in today's EM environment is the high interest in special- or technical-response teams. This trend indicates growing interest in materially improving emergency response, breaking down organizational barriers and recognizing that specialization is necessary in certain situations.
Tactics: the team approach
The modern era in emergency response tactics was launched a little more than 20 years ago, when derailed tank cars exploded in Waverly, Tenn., killing or seriously injuring nearly all of that town's police officers and firefighters. The blast occurred several days after the derailment, and case histories describe a series of poor decisions by railroad officials and public safety commanders that indicated a profound ignorance of the immense risks the responders faced.
Mishaps in Houston, Crescent City, Ill., and Kingman, Ariz., already had prompted discussion of the quality of disaster preparedness in cities and counties, particularly for hazardous materials emergencies, but the Waverly mishap drove home the problem in convincing fashion.
For more than a century, firefighters were the principal responders to emergencies in the United States, whether fighting fires, extricating victims trapped in automobile collisions or controlling hazmat spills.
Fire departments in larger cities often deployed "rescue squads" with basic tools and hydraulic appliances. But for the most part, in cities and counties both urban and rural, engine and ladder companies were the basic responders.
Since Waverly, the fire service and other public safety services have reconsidered and reconfigured re-sponses to emergencies.
Events in recent years – starting with Waverly and continuing through the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes and the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings – convinced many emergency managers to implement a specialized team approach.
In the 1980s, many municipalities began training, equipping and fielding hazmat teams, recognizing that fire companies often could not control and contain spills. Multi-jurisdictional response teams were the result.
Even if funds were available to train and equip teams for every fire department, skills maintenance would be difficult and would jeopardize firefighter safety. The specialized team approach is now spreading due to the success of hazmat teams.
Rescuing victims from elevated locations, sub-grade locations, water or collapsed structures requires specialized techniques, technology and training. Increasingly, municipalities are turning to specialized teams composed of well-trained personnel to respond to these situations.
Warner says other communities have modeled their water rescue programs on the plan dictated by necessity in Lake County, a Chicago suburb dotted with dozens of lakes and bordered by Lake Michigan.
"Our department has had water rescue teams for decades. Long ago we realized that we had a choice between water rescue and water recovery," Warner says. "Water rescue meant organizing a response by divers, boats, ambulances, commanders and support units. Today these assets are on scene within five minutes in most cases."
Lake County, like other suburban counties in growing cities, is undergoing explosive growth. Numerous new venues there present inevitable rescue challenges. "Now we're having to contemplate creating teams for trench rescue, high-angle/rope rescue and industrial rescues," Warner says.
Special or technical rescue is among the fastest-growing facets of local government spending on public safety. Special rescue teams require a variety of technologies, including specially designed rescue vehicles and trailers needed to carry personnel and equipment to emergency scenes.
The growth of outdoor recreation has played a major role in driving the technical rescue movement. Rock climbers, for example, have long depended upon the ropes and riggings that many firefighters now use.
"Today's special rescue team members are as likely to be buying their equipment from a sporting goods retailer as a traditional fire department supplies dealers," Warner said.
Special rescue teams appear most valuable in effectively responding to: * water rescues in both summer and winter and submerged motor vehicles; * MVA entrapments (extrications from autos and trucks); * rescues from collapsed structures; * sub-grade entrapments (trench, vault rescues); * aerial isolations (high-angle or rope rescues); * rural search and rescue; and * industrial machinery mishaps. FEMA organizes its Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces on the local level. Montgomery County, Md., Indianapolis and Sacramento, Calif., were among the first to train, equip and organize such teams.
When disasters occur that require urban search and rescue, FEMA alerts the teams and dispatches a military transport aircraft to carry personnel and equipment to the scene. The teams are entirely self-contained.
In addition, the National Disaster Medical System, a joint venture of FEMA and the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, assists in creation of self-contained teams known as Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT). Most DMATs are organized around one or more hospitals in large cities.
Both FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces and DMATs have seen service in events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the recent flooding in Grand Forks.
"There is intense interest in technical rescue among fire service officers across the nation," says Elgin Browning, chairman of the Technical Emergency Rescue Program Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "The public sees highly trained rescue teams working on television at an earthquake or something like what happened in Oklahoma and they ask if their city has equal capabilities. Some do and many don't."
"We know more disasters and large-scale emergencies are happening," Warner says. "And we know that well-trained and well-equipped teams can accomplish rescues in situations that seemed hopeless just a few years ago."
For additional information, contact:
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 550 C Street SW Washington, DC 20472 (202) 646-4600 http://www.fema.gov
Public Safety America 1508 East 86th Street, Suite 315 Indianapolis, IN 46240 (317) 252-3931 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Natural Hazards Research Center University of Colorado Campus Box 482 Boulder, CO 80309-0482 (303) 492-6818 http://www.colorado.edu/hazards
Disaster Research Center University Of Delaware Newark, DE 19716 (302) 831-6618 http://www.udel.edu/DRC/index.html
National Coordinating Council on Emergency Management 111 Park Place Falls Church, VA 22046 (703) 538-1795
The author is producer and managing editor of Public Safety America's online information service, due up this summer. Over the last 25 years, he has worked in rural and urban fire service, law enforcement and emergency medical services.
A March flood that affected 17 southern Ohio counties has prompted a unique partnership among local agencies and the state Department of Transportation.
County and state infrastructure repairs necessitated by the flood will cost a minimum of $41 million, according to early estimates. ODOT will contribute $15 million of that and provide technical assistance to local governments in contracts and materials purchasing matters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency currently is conducting surveys to determine which costs will be reimbursable.
ODOT helped manage the crisis from a new, $12.9 million facility in Dublin, run by the state's Emergency Management Agency. Keith Swearingen, administrator for ODOT's Office of Highway Management, said the crisis management process started when OEMA's assessment team was notified. It contacted local governments and other state agencies that have workers in the area to compile information on local conditions, activating the emergency facility as the flooding grew worse.
ODOT's EMA coordinator, Yvonne Keith, oversaw communication efforts between ODOT's district and county offices. "I started getting calls on how bad the situation had become," says Keith. "Large sections of roads and bridges were washed out, and people had sustained damage to their personal property. The first official count cited 94 roadway locations that had to be closed."
In Columbus, Gov. George Voinovich declared a state of emergency that allowed state agencies to assist local governments in the affected area. The rainfall continued for the next two days and long-term flooding occurred.
Several days into it, officials evaluated the total rainfall and made a long-range forecast on the flooding capacity of the Ohio River, concluding that the crest along the river was higher than it had been in several years.
Ohio often has flooding that closes some state highway routes along the river, but normally it does not affect any communities.
"The major difference between annual flooding and the situation we have now is the geographical devastation and damage to personal property," says Swearingen.
ODOT's emergency procedures for high water begin when a roadway crew is dispatched to close affected highways and detour traffic. If the area stays under water for several days, a barricade is erected. When Meigs County began to flood, Superintendent Brett Jones did exactly that. "I saw water in places I've never seen before," says Jones. "I had every route in my county closed, and all I could do was watch the weather radar show no end in sight."
Jones says a recently completed slip project was washed away, while pipes and culverts were clogged. Also, the root systems of trees near creek beds were unstable after being pushed up from the water.
"Meigs County has about 200 miles of road with 16 highway workers to take care of everything," says Jones. "We received 10 additional people from other districts to help with recovery efforts. Without them, we would not even be able to make a dent in the amount of work that's needed."
In April 1995, Los Angeles County became a safer setting with the inauguration of a state-of-the-art emergency operations center. Since opening, says Lt. Steve Gattis of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, "The EOC has exceeded expectations." Parts of the movie "Volcano" were filmed at the EOC, and Gattis says the film provide a realistic depiction of its capabilities.
L.A. had amply proven its need for high-quality emergency operations. The longest span between February 1992 and April 1995 without a declaration of disaster (earthquakes, fires, civil disturbances ) was six months.
L.A. County is among the world's largest and most diverse jurisdictional divisions. With 88 cities, 136 unincorporated areas and a population of 9 million, L.A. covers 4,083 square miles and ranges from 9 feet below sea level to 10,000 feet above sea level. The terrain varies from coastal plain to mountains to desert, and the county sits on one of the world's most seismically active areas.
Planners designed the county's 36,322-sq.-ft. Emergency Operations Center to be fully dedicated to emergency management. Its design and systems are based on the need for 24-hour operation of the facility during emergencies in a completely self-sufficient, safe environment for a period of seven days without resupply. All mechanical and electrical systems, as well as all technical support systems, are fully redundant with no single point of failure.
The facility, protected by base-isolation technology, is designed to withstand a magnitude 8.3 earthquake without damage. Also, all of the utility connections are flexible and capable of moving with the building, so no utilities will be lost due to movement of the facility.
The center had an unscheduled test that proved the value of the base isolators during the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake in 1994. Construction workers reported that glass window panes leaning against an interior wall of the EOC remained fully intact and did not move or fall during the temblor.
The heart of the EOC is the Incident Management Center, or the "situation room." There, eight county departments (Sheriff, Chief Administrative Officer, Fire, Public Works, Internal Services, Health Services, Public Social Services and Coroner) essential to emergency response work at dedicated computer work stations. The centralization of the Incident Management Center is key to coordinating and sharing information, ensuring that resources are directed to the most needy areas in a crisis.
"State-of-the-art mapping technology enables response teams to pinpoint, down to street level, everything from where utilities are located to where the nearest emergency vehicle is positioned," says Gattis, project liaison for the sheriff's department and on-site manager. "Our audio/video system allows constant monitoring of all major networks and satellite transmissions, keeping personnel aware of changes as they happen, regardless of the operational capacity of local news agencies."
The most remarkable aspect of the EOC design, says Gattis, is that it brings all of these resources into one room.
All of the installed systems had been thoroughly tested and proven before being considered, but design flexibility was incorporated to ensure that the EOC could keep up with advancing technology.
County officials say the main purpose of the EOC is to function as a resource center, a place to ensure that people managing emergencies can access all known resources and related information. "Very simply," says Gattis, "when resources and information are desperately needed in an emergency, unless there is a coordinated effort to direct those resources, people die."
This article was written by Sherman Block, L.A. County sheriff and emergency operations director, and Susan Keegan Gary, vice president with L.A.-based architecture/engineering firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall.