By Vicki Sheppard
Published Friday, April 30, 2010
| From the May 2010 Issue of FireRescue
Because hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 each year in the United States, most emergency services departments use the month of May to complete their hurricane preparedness procedures. At Palm Beach County Fire/Rescue (PBCFR), we have good reason to prepare. We still remember the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the bombardment of consecutive hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.
Although hurricanes are devastating events, they’ve provided PBCFR with excellent lessons learned, which has also provided us with additional training opportunities and allowed us to reinforce our department’s Hurricane Plan and seasonal preparation.
Despite the absence of hurricanes in the last 3 years, when the month of May rolls around, we continue to diligently prepare and plan for hurricane season.
Lesson No. 1: Family Relief & Recovery
Hurricane preparedness starts with the department’s greatest asset: its personnel. During the month of May, all personnel review the PBCFR Hurricane Plan, but they also make personal preparations to secure their own home and family should a hurricane occur. One significant lesson learned from previous hurricane seasons is that during hurricane activations, emergency personnel may need to work 24–72 hours or more, but while they’re dedicated to protecting the community, they’re also worried about the safety of their own families.
To address this concern, PBCFR, in partnership with the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of Palm Beach County, Local 2928, developed a network called the Family Relief and Recovery Team. During hurricane preparations, the address and contact information of each of our 1,450 fire service personnel are updated and maintained in a secure database. When a storm approaches, a map is produced for each fire station, visually indicating the name and address of the first responder(s) living in the station’s response zone.
As soon as the hurricane subsides to a safe level, crews canvas their primary response zone and report back damage impact assessments. During this process, firefighters check on the residences of every department member, utilizing the most recent personnel location map, and report their findings directly to the PBCFR command team.
Once reported damage to homes is prioritized, volunteers immediately start the emergency repair process. To ensure adequate tracking of all this information, the liaison officer assigned to the command post coordinates and organizes all Family Relief Team assignments and reports.
There are three keys to maintaining this successful program:
- Pre-planning, which includes updating responders’ personal information,
- Identifying volunteers to make repairs; and
- Collecting and stockpiling necessary supplies.
Over the last three storm activations, the Family Relief and Recovery Team provided assistance to more than 300 members and their families.
Lesson No. 2: Station Manager
Hurricane preparations also require the protection of worksites (fire stations, headquarters, maintenance shops, etc.). Prior to and during an event, each site must be inspected to ensure medical supplies are adequate, fuel supplies are sufficient, and emergency and back-up systems, such as generators, are operational. Deficiencies, such as a loose antenna, must also be corrected prior to June 1. To address these and other operational concerns, PBCFR assigns a station manager to each facility.
Through previous events, we’ve learned that the station manager position is best served by clerical personnel who are adept at documentation. Personnel willing to fill the position are identified during hurricane preparedness, and each is provided in-depth training on incident management systems, how to use all ICS forms and plans, incident documentation and FEMA reimbursement procedures.
Station manager duties include tracking and documenting apparatus and equipment use, personnel on duty, generator hour usage, fuel levels and facility problems, such as a leaking roof.
This position is critical to the logistical support of fire/rescue facilities in the aftermath of a storm. Accurate documentation is particularly critical should FEMA reimbursement become available to emergency responders.
Lesson No. 3: The Emergency Communication Plan
One reoccurring issue we face with every hurricane: the need to maintain constant communication between dispatch and every deployed emergency apparatus. To address this concern, an emergency communication plan (ECP) must be developed and tested during hurricane preparedness exercises.
The ECP should identify multiple contingency plans, in priority order, such as use of normal radio channels, relay of information through simplex channels and the use of HAM radios.
Regardless of the hurricane, the HAM radio system has proven reliable and less likely to fail than newer technologies. To address this, PBCFR has installed a HAM radio base station in each battalion headquarters to ensure the regional command team can communicate with the main command team. Additionally, emergency units are provided with portable HAM radios, should their normal radios become inoperable. Each year, as part of hurricane preparedness, HAM radio classes are provided to personnel to ensure sufficient operators are fully trained in HAM operation.
Lesson No. 4: Statewide Emergency Response Plan
One of the most significant lessons PBCFR has learned over the years is that any community may need additional support from outside organizations following a disaster; however, to ensure the best possible outcome after such incidents, assistance must be planned and coordinated in advance, because the affected agency is often incapable of supporting the needs of the additional emergency responders.
After Hurricane Andrew, the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and the Florida Emergency Operations Center developed the Statewide Emergency Response Plan (SERP). This plan provides guidance and direction for the systematic mobilization, deployment, organization and management of emergency resources throughout the state and nation.
Each year, as part of hurricane preparations, each fire/rescue agency in the state reports their resource availability to the state so emergency operations leaders know which resources are available to deploy should a hurricane strike anywhere in the state.
The lessons PBCFR has learned over the years have led to many improvements in our hurricane response and pre-planning. This month, PBCFR begins its preparations for the 2010 hurricane season, which is just around the corner. Is your department ready for the next natural disaster? If not, keep in mind the lessons shared in this article, and start preparing now.
Preparing the Public
In addition to preparing your department for hurricanes and other major storms, you should also reach out to your community to encourage citizens to prepare.
In March, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), Energizer and the American Meteorological Society created a National Public Education Weather Preparedness Program to help families prepare for whatever weather situations spring, summer and hurricane seasons might bring their way. The campaign focuses on helping families build emergency power kits to avoid having to use candles in the event of a power outage.
“Candles cause an average of nearly 15,000 home fires each year, resulting in significant numbers of preventable injuries and deaths,” says Chief Jeffrey Johnson, EFO, CFO, MIFireE and president of the IAFC. “An emergency power kit can literally be a beacon of light in a storm and can help prevent needless home fires caused by candles.”
For more information and resources to create a campaign for your community, visit www.energizer.com/learning-center/Pages/keepsafekeepgoing.aspx.
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