A hurricane is defined by NOAA as being “a tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface wind — using the U.S. one-minute average — is 64 kt (74 mph or 119 km/hr) or more.” A tropical storm is defined by NOAA as being “a tropical cyclone in which the maximum sustained surface wind speed — using the U.S. one-minute average — ranges from 34 kt (39 mph or 63 km/hr) to 63 kt (73 mph or 118 km/hr).”
Preparing your station for a response should be prioritized and orderly. Having a list of “member assets” such as small boats, personal flotation devices, and additional generators for example, will aid in knowing what assets are available. The amount of advance preparation for these situations through cooperative training, defining clear response policies, and coordinating with other local agencies and volunteer groups will lead to better outcomes.
Knowledge of established procedures and priorities will be important in responding to the immediate needs of the community. Pre-planning is the best piece of equipment for any organization. The second is coordinated training with police, EMS, hospital, and your local emergency planning commission (Emergency Management Agency) to practice a concise response protocol.
One recommended protocol suggests that at least two months before the start of hurricane season, the fire department will initiate the following:
- Review the fire department’s standard operating guide, update as needed and review with all members.
- Obtain and review the most recent version of the fire department’s continuity of operations plan (COOP).
- Update “target” occupancies list. (A “target” occupancy may be an occupancy with a high probability of trapped victims or a structure that stores a large amount of hazardous materials or is susceptible to structural failure – Examples: Schools, Hospitals, Health-care facilities, factories).
- All companies need to be familiar with the topography of their response area to become aware of flood-prone areas.
- Inventory all equipment. Ensure apparatus readiness.
- Check the condition of all fire department buildings and repair damaged roofs, windows, doors or other areas which may contribute to increased damage in a hurricane.
- Check and service all sump pumps and clear all surface-area drains of debris. Ensure that all fire department generators are serviced and working properly. Inventory and check all batteries and chargers for portable equipment and be sure all are in working order and that the number is adequate.
- All fuel tanks for apparatus should be maintained at no less than three-quarters full.
- Contact the local emergency management office to review their plans and submit the fire department plan. The fire department should be part of local emergency management operations.
- Review flood maps to determine if any fire departments are within an existing flood zone.
- Develop a “safe haven” for relocation of apparatus, equipment, electronic devices, and departmental records.
- Any items in the basement storage should be raised off of the floor in buildings subject to water penetration.
- Update department and personal phone lists for call in.
- Coordinate evacuation and special-needs shelters, including staffing requirements.
- Develop alternate communication plans for the event of a total communication systems failure.
- Develop a post-storm food and water plan for seven to 14 days.
- Update street maps due to probable loss of signage and landmarks. (GPS will not be operational.)
- Develop and communicate emergency evacuation plans in the event a station needs to be evacuated during an incident: Pre-designation of “safe havens” (defined to be a brick and mortar structure in the affected area with below grade protected areas or an inflatable/ rigid structure in a non-effected region.)
- Instructions for shutting off utilities to include electric, natural gas, propane, solar and water sources
- Recommendations in securing (or evacuating with personnel)electronic equipment and pertinent records
- Ensure all members have a personal family plan in place to secure their family and property in preparation for reporting to duty.
- Establish a family contact number that family members can call to check on a department member. (The safest procedure for families is EVACUATION to friends or family outside the storm’s impact area. Encourage members to periodically contact their families.)
The advantage to dealing with a hurricane or tropical storm over a tornado is that the warnings are sometimes a few days in advance. This allows departments time to prepare and make sure that they have the necessary equipment to deal with the aftermath.
Some of the things your department should be doing are:
- Top off all fuel tanks and apparatus, including spares, chain saws, generators, power units, portable pumps, etc.
- Test and ensure all power equipment is operational.
- Fill cascade bottles and SCBA bottles.
- Flush apparatus water tanks and refill for potential drinking water.
- Secure all loose items around the exterior of stations.
- Ensure all first responder supplies are up to normal levels.
- Charge all batteries.
- Test all manual pumping equipment on fuel tanks.
- As needed, have additional supplies delivered.
- Develop work schedules to ensure proper sleep/rehab time.
- When the local emergency operations center (EOC) is opened, ensure the fire department is represented at all times.
- Consider establishing a fire department-specific operations center.
- Secure heavy equipment to assist with debris removal following the event to ensure response capability
Have all members who will be reporting for duty, bring the following items: three sets of clothes/work uniforms/tee shirts, one jacket, five each of undershirts, underwear, pairs of socks, one extra pair of shoes, three bath towels, sleeping bag/bedding, personal flashlight and batteries, personal articles for three days (medications, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, shampoo, razor, shaving cream, mosquito repellent, non-perishable food for three days, three gallons water, other personal hygiene articles).
Encourage members to bring personal flotation devices and small boats (ensure that this equipment and the operation of this equipment is covered under the department’s insurance policies).
During the Storm
When responding during the storm, wind gusts can still be strong enough to cause vehicles to overturn, be pushed off of roadways or even be stopped by rising flood waters. Winds can turn debris into deadly projectiles, capable of decapitation and impalement. There may be other hidden dangers which could threaten responders. This is why all responders need to be vigilant in their own safety and aware of the hazards major storms bring.
Have equipment for debris removal respond with your equipment to ensure you can get to the incident and return after the incident. Operations and procedures of your specific department’s response during a major storm will require forethought. The physical location of your station could be an asset or a liability depending upon the physical characteristics of the surroundings.
Roads leading to and from can become blocked or flooded which could limit your ability to aid the community. A secondary location for operations may need to be established and outfitted in the event of relocation. In addition, a protocol will need to be established in the event of a fire or other emergency which happens during the storm. The question of whether to respond is easy but the procedures of how to respond and logistics of an interruption of service may need to be established beforehand.
Some things to consider are:
Establish defined parameters of response. (Examples include: maximum wind speed; maximum hourly rainfall; maximum water depth to operate vehicles, maximum hourly snowfall; hail fall limitations; visibility limitations and temperature limitations.)
Chief and company officers are to use their discretion when responding, mindful of the safety of fire/EMS personnel as their top priority. Notify the public if fire protection in certain areas will be compromised.
The fire department should issue media releases to advise the public that when certain weather conditions occur related to a hurricane, fire department response will cease (be specific as to what these conditions are for your department).
If appropriate, based on geography, flood map data, history etc., encourage all personnel to move personal vehicles to higher ground. Companies in flood-prone areas are to relocate by chief’s order. A “safe haven” for such an event should be established and outfitted in advance — previously defined.
Members will operate in pairs or teams of three or more. Full bunker gear will be worn, including eye protection to guard against flying debris. Aerial devices should not be operated when sustained winds reach 35 mph or more. When responses cease due to wind conditions (50 mph sustained or 60 mph gusts), apparatus should be parked headfirst in the station causing the rear of the unit to face outward to protect the windshield (assuming that there are not doors on both ends of the station bay).
Dispatch should relay all requests for service to the hurricane command, which will prioritize these requests for response when conditions permit. Before walking through water, members must use a pike pole or stick to ensure the ground has not washed away or collapsed. Measure the maximum height of the water and be aware of the type of the movement and speed of the water. Unseen hazards may be defined by how water flows over or around them. Always wear flotation devices and secure protective lines to anyone entering flooded areas. Use extreme caution when walking through water. Six inches of moving water can knock a person off their feet. Be aware of hazards in the water such as downed live electrical wires and wildlife, including snakes
Use extreme caution and limit speed when driving. Be especially cautious where the ground is saturated or flooded — the road could be washed away.
Generators used to supply electricity to the station must be outside and elevated while ensuring the exhaust is ventilated to the outside. Generators should not be placed on the apparatus floor. Carbon Monoxide exhaust kills! Turn off generators when refueling. Members should help citizens who come to the station and ensure the safety of all individuals by not releasing them unaccompanied into the elements. If stations must be evacuated, company officers will ensure utilities are shut off and the station is secure and the company will report to a “safe haven,” all in accordance with predetermined evacuations plans.
After the Storm
As always, personal safety should be your top priority when touring the scene of disaster. Power outages, water and fuel shortages as well as unstable structures should be expected obstacles in a disaster area. In addition, communications may be knocked out during the storm and may not be consistent or reliable. Begin assessments of damage by starting with station personnel and ending with the community at large by following this checklist:
Does any member require medical assistance? Does adequate staffing exist? Are there any other personnel problems?
Report on damage to windshield, body, tires, aerial, equipment and pump. Is the apparatus and related equipment operational? Can the unit be dispatched?
Is the station operational? Do any hazards exist in or immediately adjacent to the station? What significant repairs must be made?
Conduct a “windshield survey” of the first-due area, including all target hazards identified in the preseason planning, and report conditions to command. A search of predetermined “target” occupancies will be conducted as soon as possible (life-saving is top priority). All members will operate in teams or pairs. Survey the area for any electric wires before cutting any trees or debris. Assume all wires are live and contact the electric company to determine their status. Be aware of civilian generators backfeeding the system and energizing these downed wires). Other hazards include, but are not limited to, live wires down, gas leaks, building fires, unsafe structures, flooding, hazardous materials, heat stress, traumatized victims, civil disturbances, and displaced animals.
Major storms create many challenges for first responders and citizens alike, even in areas which are affected year after year. In areas which may have an event “once in a blue moon,” the need for establishing an operational protocol and training for the obstacles created during, as well as awareness of the individual needs of responders themselves, are even more important. Unfortunately, we can become jaded and think,“It’ll never happen here.” But as we’ve seen in recent years, disasters happen everywhere. Having a plan in place and keeping it updated is a small step to avoid major consequences for your community and residents as well as the responders. We applaud the efforts of the first responder community who put their lives on the line on a daily basis and even more so in a disaster.
References: Model Procedures For Response of Emergency Vehicles During Hurricanes and Tropical Storms, by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, January 2008