Help on the Horizon

Planning remains a key element in minimizing casualties, financial damage

Spring and summer weather brings hurricanes, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flooding. As people witnessed during Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, preparation is crucial to the safety of the populace. Sometimes early warning is available; other times, disaster strikes without warning.

The following recommendations are meant to help officials plan for the next disaster—while limiting casualties and financial damage.

The Importance of Notification

The first thing any organization must do is develop an emergency telephonic recall plan.

Most organizations already have a telephone tree, but a recall plan is a method of identifying who has been notified in a fast, effective manner. The best way to do this is to break the alert roster into departments. The first person notified will be the head of each department. The head of the department would then call the next person on the list. If the next person on the list is unavailable or has no phone service, the next person will be called and so on, until the department head has made contact with a subordinate.

The head of the department will note who was not reached and pass that information to the notified subordinate. At this point, the department head will call the senior official and receive further instructions to move operations to the office or begin to operate by using the department head's phone.

This system allows the senior officials to begin work immediately, while subordinates continue to alert others on the list. Once the last subordinate is notified, he or she will call the department head back and report the names of those who were not contacted. This informs the department head as to who is available and who may be in danger. This provides government officials with the ability to quickly react and appropriate resources to various tasks.

In addition, senior decision makers should have satellite phones. When early warning for impending hurricanes and other situations is available, additional satellite phones can be rented by the day or week until the crisis is resolved.

Getting Around

Whenever possible, road clearing and power restoration assets should be pre-positioned throughout the cities. During Hurricane Isabelle in 2003, fallen trees caused unimaginable destruction. Removing these trees was an immediate necessity, not only for the restoration of power but also to enable medical personnel to reach the sick and injured.

As soon as possible after the storm, tree removal teams should lead utility trucks into their zones of responsibility. The zones of responsibility should coincide with the electrical grids to further assist in power restoration.

Also, medical personnel should have equipment that can be used in the field to transport injured personnel to an ambulance, which may be blocked by trees, water or other obstacles, possibly several blocks away. This equipment should include pole-less litters, Israeli litters or a skedco and a tow-rope in case they become stuck.

Communication Considerations

Communication is crucial during and after a storm. Often landlines, as well as cellular phone service, go down. Key personnel within the local government should have access to satellite phones. Two of the most reliable within the United States are the iridium phone and the Inmarsat satellite phone, both of which are easy to operate. This will allow key personnel to contact each other as well as the governor and other officials for assistance. All personnel should receive training on the use of these phones to ensure their effectiveness during a crisis.

Radio repeaters will likely be affected as well, which is why back-up generators are a must. Additionally, one or two mobile repeaters should be available. Primary and alternate sites for these repeaters should be selected during contingency planning, long before a disaster occurs. Generally the highest parts of the city are the best places for these. These repeaters are line-of-sight, so avoid placing them where obstacles may block the antennas.

In the event of a major disaster, airto- ground radios can help coordinate various medical evacuation sites as well as aerial resupply sites. Even for daily public safety issues, these radios should be maintained by the senior patrol officer for each district. Various air-toground systems are available, some from less than $300. These radios can be passed to each shift to save on the number of radios needed.

The use of law enforcement and other agency liaisons may be necessary to utilize resources to the greatest extent. Liaisons can bridge the gap to enable various departments working in the same area to communicate, even if the radios and frequencies are incompatible. The liaisons can relay radio traffic to their agency and inform the disaster command personnel as to the location of their particular agency's personnel within the crisis area. This will eliminate confusion and allow key staff members to best utilize assets without encountering unnecessary duplicating efforts.

All surrounding local agencies should have a line-of-sight channel common to all local agencies. Although this channel won't be able to communicate throughout the city, it will allow various agencies working collectively in the same area to communicate. This frequency should be on all handheld radios as well as vehicle radios.

However, if an officer's handheld radio is able to communicate through a repeater on the interdepartmental channel, he or she should monitor the common frequency on the vehicle radio because it has a better antenna and more transmit power. This will enable officers to communicate further.

To further assist in the communications realm, government officials should coordinate with local HAM radio operators. These individuals can talk to other radios across the state and around the world. Local radio clubs also can provide damage reports from their areas even if the phones are down.

Some radio enthusiasts also have the ability to conduct phone patches—a method of talking from one radio to another, which in turn is attached to a phone line. This would allow an official to call the governor's office, for example, even if all telephone service in the region is down. Local radio clubs should be included in all contingency plans, and most are more than willing to be involved.

The Threat of Flooding

Flooding presents a different problem during disasters. One of the first things an organization should do during contingency planning is identify all the low ground in the area based on map data. These areas should be evacuated first when a storm is expected. Don't just rely on historical data concerning flooding; newly developed housing areas also may be in jeopardy.

Obviously, communities with small boats should conduct inspections of all boats to ensure they are operational prior to the storm. Additionally, volunteers should be sought to provide additional small boats if necessary. This will assist in providing a coordinated rescue effort as opposed to volunteers merely searching aimlessly, as an organized search pattern is always more effective.

Evacuation Made Easy

Evacuation shelters should include food and water, and officials must designate sleeping areas for families, men and women. This will increase safety within the shelter. If there are not enough toilets to handle the number of people in the shelter, officials may want to consider bringing in portable toilets. These will need to be tied down if they are kept outside during the storm. This will help maintain a healthier environment should the shelter be needed for several days.

When possible, areas should be set up for evacuating pets as well. Many people will not leave their homes without their beloved pets. This will endanger more lives and cost far more money than creating an emergency shelter for pets.

Help From Above

Helicopter landing zones should be identified for potential aerial resupply sites during the contingency planning phase. First responder personnel must be trained to identify useable helicopter landing sites and how to mark hazards around the site. During a disaster, these sites should be observed by first responders to ensure they are still free of obstacles and available for use. This will allow public safety helicopters to be used to supply ice, water and food to various neighborhoods where the roads are impassable.

Local officials should coordinate with the National Guard to develop a better understanding of what assets are available to an officially declared disaster area. These assets may include the use of helicopters for resupply, large trucks that are able to traverse rough terrain for ground resupply and medical personnel to assist with a mass casualty situation. The Air National Guard may provide cargo aircraft to move supplies from unaffected areas to a location where the supplies can be crossloaded onto helicopters and flown to the areas in need.

Informing the Public

Public information is critical during disasters. Officials must keep in mind that much of the populace will be in panic and without television or radio to stay apprised of the situation. In effect, the average citizen's whole world will become only what they can see and the difficulty of their local situation.

Public address systems should be used to inform the populace as to what has happened. Police officers also can patrol and provide additional information to calm people down. It also is imperative that the message delivered is written by a city official and read verbatim by patrol officers and other first responders. This will keep the message consistent throughout the entire city. These written messages also can be dropped by air to areas that are unattainable due to debris, flooding or other hazards.

City officials also should develop a simple flier or booklet that informs citizens on how to purify water, for example. The flier also should provide a marking system to identify homes of the elderly, special-needs patients and critically injured personnel. This could be as simple as a sheet staked down in the front yard or a large medic cross painted on the roof. The flier or booklet should be small so it can be dropped from an aircraft, if necessary, to provide lifesaving tips to citizens in dire need.

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