Getting Help in a Disaster

The past week has demonstrated on several levels how our country responds to a national-scale disaster. The effects of Hurricane Katrina in several states has likely resulted in the largest rescue by emergency services in the history of the country. Resources from practically every state have been sent into the damaged areas in an effort to help mitigate the destruction, rescue survivors and restore basic services in ravaged areas.

Along with that help has come a great deal of criticism of the federal government and how it responded to provide assistance. A number of officials and the general public felt more should have been done faster. As emergency responders, we know the value of a coordinated response to emergencies. If an emergency occurs in the community next door and we hear about it, we don t professionally respond until requested. Having more people or equipment than can be efficiently managed doesn t help resolve the situation; it usually creates more chaos and confusion than help.

The federal resources for such incidents are, by design, not intended to assume responsibility for the emergency but rather to assist local officials within the parameters that are established by the local incident command system. During a disaster, it s key for local officials and emergency agencies to have a preplanned incident command system.

It s also important to understand that no federal resources whether they re USAR (urban search and rescue), DMAT (disaster medical assistance), law enforcement or military can respond on their own. A series of notifications must occur in order to activate the teams, to develop the logistics for deployment to affected areas and to begin work in a systematic way within an organized command structure.

Consider the following factors before a disaster happens in your backyard.

Adopt and follow NIMS. A basic requirement for every agency is to adopt, understand and use the national incident management system. Most fire departments have been using this model for many years, and now other public agencies are also using the same model. This program provides for a standard language, response models and communication methods to ensure the highest degree of emergency response coordination and mitigation efforts.

Become familiar with your state emergency response plan. What steps do your local officials (or you) need to take in order to access regional or state resources? Even if you have a USAR or DMAT team in your community, you can t directly call them to access their resources in response to your emergency. The middle of a disaster is not the time to learn the appropriate steps in requesting help at the state or federal level.

Develop a local response plan that involves emergency agencies and public officials. Consider what potential disasters could affect your community and what resources you would need to continue emergency services. Your plan should be based on being self-sufficient for 48 72 hours. Involve all personnel from the area in the planning who will be responsible during the actual emergency. The plan should include tabletop and practical exercises involving how you ll communicate during the situation.

One way to help in that planning is to get your local officials to attend a training program at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md. Check out the programs they provide on its Web site at

Consider your employees and their families. In this current disaster, most of the emergency personnel also lived in the affected regions. In many cases, these workers had to send their families to a safe area while they remained on duty. With limited communications in any disaster, you need to have a way for your employees to check on their families at least daily. You should also determine a means to secure their property or be able to check on the status of their homes at certain times. In an already difficult situation, you shouldn t increase the stress experienced by your staff by not allowing them to take care of their families or homes.

Review the National Response Plan. You can find a copy on the Department of Homeland Security Web site at In order to get a basic understanding of the resources and how to access them, it s important to know about the necessary processes of a disaster or large-scale emergency. You should also review the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) Web site at for the resources that the program can provide.

Develop an employee ID system. One concern that was raised during this disaster is the credentialing of personnel. Does your department have picture ID tags that would allow them to respond within your community and get to your stations or equipment? Review the requirements for federal credentialing if your agency is interested in sending people to work in other parts of the country. Being a nationally registered EMT or paramedic can certainly help in most situations when responding outside of your state.

Consider the establishment of a CERT program in your community. Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) are in use in many communities. Citizens are trained by local emergency responders to a basic level, and they can volunteer to assist emergency agencies in the event of a local disaster or large-scale emergency. Information can be found on the FEMA Web site at

When you think of the saying, I m from the government and I m here to help, you should know that helping doesn t mean taking absolute control of the situation. As a local official or as the supervisor of an agency, you ll still have a great deal of responsibility for an emergency that occurs in your community. The more you do to plan, the better prepared you ll be to respond.

To those that want to only criticize, I would urge you to think about solutions to problems that occurred during the disaster. Write them down, and send them to your state or federal officials. Even if just one solution helps in the next disaster, you will have contributed something rather than just criticizing those attempting to do their best. As in every disaster that has ever occurred in the United States, there will be many lessons learned and improvements made to better prepare us for the next one. Your ideas and efforts can make a difference if you take the time to be involved in making it better.

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