DISASTER MANAGEMENT/Fort Worth manages tornado according to plan
April 4 started like a normal day in Texas. By nightfall, however, as a tornado rolled into downtown Fort Worth, the once-calm land turned into a disaster area.
By 9:00 p.m., emergency workers in nearby cities and counties were being summoned to the scene. Police officers had sealed the area and were posted at every street leading downtown to turn gawkers away. Later that evening, Gov. Bush declared the Fort Worth area a disaster, enabling more assistance from the state level.
Fort Worth Fire Station No. 2 was quickly turned into a staging area for emergency workers, including members of Texas Task Force One (TTF1) — an urban search and rescue (USAR) team — and the Texas Department of Public Safety, as well as off-duty Fort Worth firefighters. There they began executing the city’s official Emergency Management Plan, which can be applied to any emergency situation, such as a tornado, hurricane or terrorist act. (In Texas, before a city or county can receive assistance from the state, it must have an Emergency Management Plan on file with the Texas Department of Emergency Management. That plan, which must follow the department’s guidelines, is broken into annexes that address the problems that will arise from disasters when resources are in high demand. Workers also perform regular training exercises to ensure that everyone understands the steps involved in executing the plan.)
Emergency workers were divided into teams of four and sent to relieve personnel who had been working the disaster since the tornado first hit. Police had already set up barricades to help protect fire and emergency medical service workers entering hazardous, unsecured areas and to prevent looting.
Teams heading into the tornado’s path of destruction quickly saw the extent of the damage: Windows were shattered, building material was stripped from every structure; vehicles were hurled against and into structures; electric lines were down; and debris consisting of everything imaginable was scattered across the land.
The city’s first task was to locate victims. TTF1 workers brought in trained search dogs and headed to the downtown area where most of the damage had occurred. No one was trapped in the debris, but the rescue team discovered that five people had been killed in the tornado.
In addition, the tornado had created biohazards, leaking vehicle fuel, leaking natural gas, spilled chemicals, sharp edges, trip hazards, collapse hazards and garbage. Workers encountered difficulties maneuvering around those dangers without harming themselves or the environment. Each facility was checked for stability before workers entered to search for victims.
Hazardous materials crews were called in to deal with the chemical spills with quick absorption techniques. Materials that could not be absorbed were referred to the hazardous materials team for proper disposal. Biohazards were bagged in red containers for easy identification and disposal.
Meanwhile, Fort Worth employees drove front-end loader vehicles through the tornado’s path to clear debris. In many cases, the trucks ended up pushing downed trees, building parts and wrecked cars to the sides of the roadways in order to clear driving routes for emergency vehicles such as ambulances.
The city was forced to close major streets for days to manage the cleanup. Some streets were closed for more than a week while crews worked to clear debris hanging from the high-rises so that glass and debris would not fall on passers-by.
Fort Worth’s quick response to the tornado resulted from the fact that the city followed its predetermined emergency management plan. The biggest challenge in any disaster is to get the proper resources to the proper response site. In spite of the paralyzing devastation to a major area of Fort Worth, the city responded quickly and effectively to deploy rescue personnel.
— Randy Corbin, director of education for the Fire & Emergency Television Network, Dallas, and former fire chief for Lewisville, Texas.