Hurricanes and other natural disasters present life-threatening risks that are apparent to everyone, but they also create risks and damage not visible or obvious to those without an emergency plan. Planning and pre-planning not only aids recovery, but accurate pre-plans that provide situational awareness by identifying the components of a building or town’s critical infrastructure can help preserve life and property.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I visited a building for which I’d helped develop electronic pre-plans. With these plans in place, both the building officials and I were able to see a clear footprint of all three floors of the building, including critical assets and their locations, main utilities, and contact information for those responsible for the building before, during, and after an incident. This particular building has multiple air conditioning units powered by natural gas placed on the roof.
With winds averaging 70 m.p.h. during the storm, the gusts were strong enough to rip open a set of doors on one of the air conditioning units; these doors are meant to remain closed. With the doors damaged and open, the air conditioning unit shifted and broke a one-inch gas line that was feeding this 50-ton HVAC unit that served the second floor of the building. This broken gas line, being fed by a four-inch gas main, allowed the natural gas to seep into the second and third floors of the building. One of the building engineers had come in around five a.m. and smelled the overwhelming odor of gas on the second floor. The smell was warning sign enough — we all know what natural gas leaks can cause. This engineer, knowing the building, shut off the main gas. I arrived at the building at about seven a.m., and was immediately notified of the incident. I knew something had to be done to mitigate this disaster waiting to happen. In seconds, I was able to access the building pre-plans and electronic floor plans and identify the specific air conditioning unit that caused the leak. I made my way up to the roof and was able to isolate the unit by closing off the gas valve feeding the second floor unit. This enabled the other engineers and me to get the building up and running, maintain heat and hot water, and sustain the recovery operations for Hurricane Sandy that were taking place inside the facility.
Knowing each minute is valuable in situations like this, having my electronic pre-plan and situational awareness application easily accessible salvaged what could have been a catastrophic incident. If I hadn’t had the electronic pre-plan for that building — the immediate situational awareness — I can’t say what that unchecked gas leak would have led to. And I knew that this was only one example of the myriad response efforts that take place during large-scale incidents — large and small, local and regional.
Communities and First Responders Working Together
The importance of having updated and accessible pre-plans is only a small aspect, however, to managing effective response and recovery efforts. Since response and recovery efforts for large-scale incidents like Hurricane Sandy involve whole communities and agencies from different towns, counties, and even states, pre-planning for those incidents should take into consideration and be built around best practices for working with each agency and community, either local or regional. When it comes to organizing and/or sharing both pre-plans and situational awareness applications for different infrastructures, the roles and responsibilities of those involved must be clear and practiced.
When a natural or manmade large-scale disaster occurs, having the existing pre-plans for affected infrastructure organized, then distributed to first responders, streamlines response and recovery operations. First responders are trained to understand and decipher pre-plans, but oftentimes the plans come in various and/or unfamiliar formats and lack important information like the locations of main utilities or shut-offs. Buildings must raise their standards when it comes to pre-planning for imminent emergencies. Having a standard — based around something electronic, for example — would raise the bar and ensure that plans are updated as they may change, as new employees come to work, and as the responsibilities of those within the building evolve. Modernized versions of pre-plans are out there, and the more people who pursue them, the more efficient our responses become.
Since every agency is required, at some level, to have pre-plans, finding a program that can meet most everyone’s needs and requirements, and enhance those requirements, would be ideal. Whether a facility is considered commercial or municipal, is categorized by region, or is a school district, each facility is required to have on-hand and accessible to first responders documented pre-plans. A school district for example, is required, by law to have paper floor plans, emergency action plans, contact information, and required drills for each building. Nine times out of 10, this material sits in a three-ring binder, isn’t updated as often as it ought to be, and is left to collect dust. Also, the existence of the three-ring binder, and only the three-ring binder, limits the ability to share vital information when it is needed most. Having updated pre-plans accessible to both building officials and first responders in times of an incident is integral to the high-quality response.
Utilities managers, county or state emergency managers, town councils, mayors — even governors — should encourage a bottom-up approach to large-scale disaster pre-planning.
Training for Large-Scale Incidents with Pre-Plans
The development and implementation of pre-plans — electronic pre-plans, especially — presents new training tools and opportunities for first responders. Whether in local firehouses or at the academy level, instructors are able to teach classes that incorporate data gathered during the pre-planning process and incorporated into electronic tools — real-time, community-wide data. If entire communities have pre-planned, the task of training for a widespread disaster becomes as much about responding to one’s specific community or region as it is about honing skills. That information can be effectively collected and shared before an incident. That information can be reliably learned. First responders also have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with pre-plan tools in large-scale incident response in a training scenario. With this information available, developing a more dependable plan and executing a more reliable response is feasible.
It is important to keep in mind the success or failure of a training event can be impacted before the training event takes place. Having participants of the event prepared is one way to ensure a greater level of success. Instructors, or training managers, ought to prepare beforehand by sitting down with those invited to participate and discussing why they have been asked to attend the session, what the session’s goals are, and how it relates to the job they do. In the real world, preparation before classes doesn’t happen as much as I would like it to, but there are strategies instructors and organizers of classes can require in an effort to support training classes reaching their full potential. A simple list with clearly defined training objectives, team benefits, and procedures for follow up after the training can go a long way in enhancing the communication and overall success of the course. This is especially important if instructors endeavor to train first responders for large-scale incidents, and that training incorporates actual community or regional data. Providing short reading assignments prior to the course and having all participants complete course assessments are additional ways to train.
Using Pre-Plans During Large-Scale Response
Local government agencies and first responders prepare for everyday emergencies. However, it is daunting to plan for a large-scale disaster that exceeds a community’s immediate response capability. While adjacent jurisdictions and state or federal resources may join forces to help, delays may occur in getting to those who need help most. In large-scale emergency situations it is important to utilize a management system, a point person, or chain of command for coordinating efforts and following the plan already in place.
In times of disaster most people want to help the response and recovery efforts but don’t know what to do or who to ask. Pre-planned facilities should be encouraged to designate a commander in chief to help execute their plan and run recovery operations as effectively as possible. At work or home, including planning teams in pre-plans which identify responsibilities specific to individuals is a way to share the response and make sure everyone knows the plan. Incorporating teams can help make non-first responders conscious of the risks and responsibility they face on a daily basis.
For citizens who want to help with disaster planning, it is important to reiterate how important it is for them to have their own pre-plans for their home. Pre-planning can come down to packing emergency kits and having them ready, having a situational awareness of the resources in your county, having backup resources like gasoline or fuel for a generator, and setting a meeting place in case people become separated. Again: a bottom-up approach to pre-planning is best when considering how to prepare communities for disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Individuals, small groups, groups of groups; as more people prepare, the overall preparedness of a community or region grows exponentially — especially if that preparedness includes pre-plans that can be shared electronically with first responders locally and beyond.
Pre-Plans and Recovery
Not only are pre-plans valuable before and during an emergency, but pre-planning is also essential for performing a successful recovery effort. The benefit of electronic pre-plans especially is the inclusion of disaster recovery plans and other action plans.
Creating a disaster recovery plan can include making sufficient agreed-upon preparations and designing and implementing a set of correlating procedures for response. With an emphasis on safeguarding the critical assets of any building or area, as well as ensuring the continued availability of critical IT services, pre-planning for recovery is intended to minimize the effect of a disaster upon the operations of the department. Recovery Plans may include sections on risk reduction and prevention to help prevent any interruptions in computing and network systems, identification of the critical functions with noted priority, identification of alternate sites of operation, and establishment of the personnel responsible for all components of disaster recovery.
Keep it Simple
These are all things we already know as first responders. Of course we should have pre-plans. Of course individuals, small groups, schools, managers of major infrastructure, towns, and regions should plan effectively for emergencies, even large-scale emergencies. But after all these years as a first responder, I still find myself reminded of the importance of diligent planning for expedient response. I’m still reminded that there are tools out there that we can adopt as first responders that make planning, response, and recovery a little simpler and faster for everyone.
My gas leak experience is but one small example of the kind of emergency that can be created during a large-scale incident. However, I have little doubt that someone other than me — someone who didn’t have a background in fire fighting — who was sufficiently familiar with the electronic pre-plan for that building could’ve resolved that gas leak. That’s the simplest endorsement for electronic pre-plans that I can give: they truly afford anyone with access a greatly increased level of situational awareness. And in emergencies large and small, something as simple as that can make all the difference.
Dennis Amodio is a retired firefighter with the City of New York Fire Department, assigned to Rescue Company 1 (Special Operations). Amodio has extensive experience with engine and truck work, Collapse Rescue Operations, and High Rise Operations. He worked the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center rescue operations. He has taught classes in Truck Tactics, Engine Operations, Team Search, Heavy Rescue, Collapse Rescue, Vehicle Extrication, and Thermal Imaging with American and foreign firefighters. Dennis works to train fire departments nationally and internationally in effective Fire Fighting and Rescue techniques. Currently, he is the Safety Division Director of GEOcommand, Inc. at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, NY.