THE MAGAZINE

Agency of Last Resort

By Matthew Harwood

To achieve that objective, members of fire departments must be immersed in their communities’ disaster response and emergency management planning, says Lawrence.

In addition, fire departments and their first responders have to become jacks of all trades. They have to know who can call McDonald’s and order 500 hamburgers to feed homeless people and who has the authority to pay for it. They have to be trained to use hand pumps to get fuel if gas stations lose power. They have to know where to place a flatbed delivery of Porta Potties that arrives unexpectedly, a scenario that actually happened to one fire department after a tornado.

In addition, fire departments have to have a plan. If they don’t think they will be able to handle the influx of people seeking assistance, they should determine how they will outsource these duties to other local organizations. To the extent that they plan to handle these tasks, they also need to determine how they will do so without sacrificing their ability to meet their obligation to fight fires or mount search and rescue operations.

The most critical aspect of becoming the agency of last resort, however, is simply surviving whatever disaster has struck the department’s community. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, the city and county’s emergency operations center (EOC) became inoperable after its building was destroyed. Critical EOC communications were lost for hours as the city scrambled to get personnel out of the damaged facility and into another operational location.

To increase the odds of surviving any event, fire stations need to consider where they are located and the strength of their structure. For example, when possible, they should be built on high ground to protect against flooding.

One related concern to department survival when disaster strikes is ensuring that firefighters know that their family members are safe. It’s a lesson learned in New Orleans after the levees broke. “If your family’s missing, you’re not going to be available,” says Lawrence.

A solution for this is for firefighters to get their family members out of harm’s way in advance when there’s enough advanced notice.

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