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Best Practices for Disaster Preparedness

 

Across the country, jurisdictions face a wide variety of disasters, from weather-related to man-made. From terrorists to tornadoes, many agencies have focused their response efforts on a trial and error method, where they developed their own best practices on disaster response as it unfolded.

While the old axiom, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” may apply, a new process is available that could better manage and direct available resources to achieve the maximum results in disaster-related events. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the Incident Command System (ICS) are a comprehensive, integrated and flexible plan designed to manage any size incident with consistency and clarity.

Prior to the development of NIMS/ICS through the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, many agencies responded to disasters in a more reactive than proactive approach. The reactive approach immediately applied available resources, sometimes haphazardly, to problem areas. Back-up resources were used wherever the need arose during the incident. One problem with this approach is that with the scarcity of resources available, many times they could be mismanaged or underutilized due to either “knee jerk”-style applications, or perhaps because of jurisdictional or interagency power struggles.

These pre-NIMS/ICS days resulted in many procedural roadblocks being encountered, which made proactive measures or extensive disaster planning and training a lesser priority. However, as disasters have become more frequent during the past few years in many jurisdictions, the apparent need for a more structured, workable plan was inevitable. This became especially more evident with the threat of domestic terrorism emerging in our society.

Local Applications

A trio of tornadoes occurring in 1999, 2003 and 2008 in the Jackson, Tenn., area necessitated the Jackson Police Department to take a different approach from applying traditional emergency services response strategies. These tornadoes claimed several lives and resulted in millions of dollars in property damages. Ultimately, this led to a departmental homeland security liaison being established to coordinate training and facilitate the dissemination of information stemming from the federal level.

The recognition for a new strategy in disaster preparedness led to the implementation of training in ICS, which was achieved prior to the 2008 tornado and had a positive impact on managing resources. This approach was a major factor in achieving desired recovery efforts in the most time-efficient and cost-effective manner available. The application of ICS resulted in a coordinated effort by multi-agencies observing standardized protocol and resulted in the controlled, efficient way required of a viable disaster plan.

For those who are not familiar with ICS, a better understanding of the flow involved in unity of command and some of the terminology within an ICS operation are depicted by an organizational chart available at FEMA’s Web site at www.training.fema.gov.

Benefits of Preparedness Training

The ICS plan implements a process of structuring whereby the personnel, policies, procedures, facilities and equipment unite into a synergistically flexible framework. This framework uses a standard system of response and operational procedures which helps alleviate problems in communication that can develop in less structured plans. Specifically, preparedness through this system is achieved and maintained by following a preparedness cycle.

This cycle incorporates and flows through seven steps: planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating and taking corrective action as necessary. Also, another important consideration in adopting this system is the federal funding it provides to emergency services personnel who are in compliance with NIMS standards. In an age of most agencies finding themselves “doing more with less,” the idea of receiving monetary assistance in these instances can prove to be very helpful.

Community Response

Another benefit of preparedness training comes from FEMA’s efforts to train citizens through forming a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). This program educates people about disaster preparedness by training them in response skills that include fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations. This training is designed to help local volunteers in the community assist in their neighborhood or workplace in the event that professional responders are not immediately available to help.

CERTs are especially helpful in meeting the demand for supporting emergency services personnel following a disaster where the extenuating factors such as numerous victims, communication failures, and road blockages can impede and overwhelm normal resources.

These additionally trained people could mean the difference between life or death for many others in the event of a disaster. The training is useful, not just for a disaster, but anywhere at any time. The training can be accomplished by attending a 2 1/2-hour class, one day a week, over a seven-week period. Involving citizens in this type of training and inclusion in the community’s strategic response plan is a win-win situation. They become a readily recognizable component in the response network as “fellow stakeholders” in the event of a disaster.

Implications

Why conduct preparedness training and planning and meet NIMS/ICS standards? Of course, failing to plan is planning to fail. While it may be true that many agencies will never experience the magnitude of disasters that many others have been through, looking at this training just from the perspective of disaster application would be an injustice to the consideration of implementing ICS. The plan can be easily adapted and utilized in non-disaster-related events as well as disaster. Instances such as rallies, parades or providing protection for visiting dignitaries could all be applicable to the ICS approach.

Furthermore, this approach to managing incidents has been tested and proven as a reliable way to provide clear communication and accountability for providing efficient use of resources in emergency and non-emergency situations for more than 30 years. Another factor supporting the use of this plan is its sheer simplicity, as the plan is designed to expand or contract with the size of the event. This is accomplished through the provisions of the key concepts of unity of command; common terminology; management by objective; and by being a flexible, modular organizational plan.

Federal funding is available for those agencies in compliance with NIMS standards. Even the smallest affected area struck by disaster can easily accumulate large expenditures. If your jurisdiction is like most, the budgets are tight, and emergency funds contained within local government coffers pale in comparison to what may be needed to cover operating costs during such an event. Most notable was that the disasters caused area agencies to look more closely at mutual aid and communication interoperability issues.

The foresight to begin pre-staging equipment prior to storms reaching the area also became a primary focus of the preparedness plan. Ordinarily, most agencies do not have all of their training or equipment needs met at 100 percent. Jackson-Madison County learned that even with a great deal of training and equipment already in place, there are always needs to be met as budgets allow.

Training should be completed as realistically as possible. Most preparedness drills or exercises are extensions of daily responsibilities with increases of victims or complications. However, these drills usually don’t cover extended operational periods or night shifts. Personnel and funding are the major reason training is not taken to a higher level. Furthermore, some of the highest priorities at this time are in establishing improved interagency communication interoperability and building a secure, unified underground communications facility with the ability to support the county and/or region.

As a result of working through several disasters, the JPD has gained valuable insight into the totality of disaster preparedness and developed some best practices. These include establishing direct links to state fusion centers; participating in eight county unified response plans; evaluating annual preparedness through table-top exercises; dedicating a Terrorism Liaison Officer to support Homeland Security; maintaining a West Tennessee Counter-Terrorism Group; and partnering with federal agencies, including ATF, DEA, ICE and Federal Protective Services.

Even with government subsidies, wise choices need to be made in the budgeting of funds which are designated for this use. Consequently then, the essence of disaster preparedness is to train to the highest level that your budget can afford. Utilize all available secondary resources within your disposal, and continuously train and plan as often and realistically as possible.

Speaking from experience, there is no substitute for careful planning of response strategies and periodic evaluation of your plans. The hope is that your agency never encounters the devastation of sudden disaster, but in the event that disaster strikes, to be prepared to the fullest extent possible. Experience has shown that you will respond to a situation at the level of your preparation.

Sergeant Johnny Jines is in the patrol division of the Jackson, Tenn., Police Department and has more than 26 years of law enforcement experience. He may be reached at jkjines@gmail.com.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2010

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