Natural disaster Preparedness

Is your station ready?

CarolinaFireJournal - Jeff Barnes, Brian Griffith, and John Kelley
Jeff Barnes, Brian Griffith, and John Kelley
10/14/2010 -

The Florida weatherman is in a floppy poncho holding his microphone in one hand and his yellow hood to his head with the other. As he pushes towards the wind to stay in view of the television camera, he sternly declares, “Severe weather is coming — the biggest we’ve seen in years.” Of course, the local television and radio stations follow with, “it is headed our way in a few days.”


Memories of the $7 billion in damage and 56 fatalities caused by Hugo in 1989, the $3.2 billion and 22 fatalities by Fran in 1996 and $4.5 billion and 57 fatalities by Floyd in 1999 have the public worried. We all know what is next — the calls pouring into the station from everyone! We are now faced with the strong possibility of trees and utility lines coming down, building damage and flooding. The list of issues becomes increasingly longer by the moment. Without warning, the public begins to gather at the station believing it is the safest place to seek shelter. It is now too late to evaluate the structural integrity of the station or create a disaster plan.

Most municipalities have fully developed emergency plans and procedures in place. However, volunteer stations are unique. They have overlapping local government jurisdictions and duties, and have staff with various levels of experience, training and availability. These scenarios need to be included in the planning, design and management of first responder stations.

Since we are now in the middle of hurricane season and it will not be long before snow and ice are threatening, below is a brief checklist of items to review to ensure the station is prepared for a severe weather event:

Priority 1: Keep the station running! Emergencies are when the station is needed most.

  • Building Power
  • If power is lost, will backup power automatically start, and after what time interval will it start?
  • What systems and equipment are on the backup power system (communications, overhead doors, lights, cooking, computers, charge stations, a/c and heat)?
  • How long will the fuel for the backup power last?
  • When was the system last tested and serviced?
  • Is there backup/emergency lighting which starts prior to the backup power system?
  • What areas are critical or need additional lighting?
  • Personnel
  • Do volunteer personnel become fulltime during severe weather events?
  • Will they be accommodated at the station?
  • Will staff services be ready (showers, kitchens and food, power)?
  • Does the staff know what is expected of them and how to balance those expectations with personal obligations?
  • Equipment
  • Are charge stations for radios, pagers, defibrillators, flashlights etc. at the ready?
  • Is there a sufficient supply of fuel for all vehicles and hand held tools?

Priority 2: Communicate

Most of the news is aimed towards the larger municipalities and may conflict with local plans.

Verify and review the area’s emergency plans and be sure all team members are accounted for and coordinated.

  • Local/county government and emergency management offices
  • Police department
  • Adjacent fire departments and emergency medical service stations
  • Red Cross and medical providers
  • FEMA
  • Road crews/debris removal
  • Utilities: power, gas and communications
  • Coordinate communication methods between agencies.
  • Radio (and frequencies)
  • Phone/mobile/call centers and fall over of systems if one is damaged
  • Internet/Web sites
  • Who should be the spokesperson to the media?

Priority 3: Respond (We all know this is truly Priority 1)

  • Where are the shelters? Is/should the station be a shelter or gathering area?
  • How are those at high risk to be aided (seniors, the disabled, young children, those requiring on-going medical treatment)?
  • How to address high-risk people who refuse aid because they have animals in their care.

Priority 4: Recovery

Every situation is different. By properly addressing Priorities 1-3, hopefully recovery will be limited.

Do not forget about basic building and site maintenance.

  • Are the overhead doors in good repair, up-to-date and rated for heavy winds?
  • Are trees in good condition and trimmed away from the building and utilities?
  • Are the gutters clean and the roof able to support the weight of snow and ice?

Unfortunately, stations built prior to the 80s have difficulty meeting today’s demands. These stations have typically doubled their call load and their equipment and vehicles have increased in complexity, power requirements and in physical size. OSHA requirements and newer building codes make upgrades of existing facilities difficult and of marginal benefit. Sometimes the best solution is to re-evaluate the fire service area plan and take steps towards a new station (or stations) and retire the outdated ones.

No amount of planning can make one completely prepared. By addressing potential severe weather issues in advance we can better concentrate on the public in their time of need.

Jeff Barnes, ALVFD, is a retired fire chief, and currently VP of Bobbitt Design Build. John Kelley is VP of Bobbitt Design Build. Brian Griffith, AIA, LEED AP is Senior Designer of Bobbitt Design Build.

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