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Disaster Planning Means Plan to Succeed

Hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorists, blizzards, bombs, wildfires, labor strikes, storms, unruly demonstrations—in short, disasters—are the stuff of headlines, but they are also the incidents that require your department to plan well in advance. Waiting until an incident occurs and trying to put together a response can sometimes work, but likely only by chance.

As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” You must plan now to succeed later. Your department’s disaster plans can help your community, businesses and institutions get up and running again and can aid those directly affected by the disaster. Good disaster planning also can save money because people are prepared to respond effectively.

Will a disaster occur in your geographic area? Some people stay in denial, believing that disasters happen “somewhere else.” That kind of thinking can be flawed. Plan now to cope with a disaster and its aftermath, and motivate your department’s leaders to develop everything it takes to cover the procedures, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery phases of a disaster.

Remember that disaster planning is more than just making a plan and then putting it on a shelf and considering it “done.” Disaster planning is ongoing. It has to be reviewed at least every year, preferably more frequently. Everyone must participate in drills, mock scenarios and “tabletop” exercises in disaster, fire and safety procedures. Even though a disaster’s conditions are not under your control, you can control your response to those conditions by remaining calm, thereby lessening injuries and property damage and eventually restoring normalcy.

A comprehensive written plan will include procedures, lists, check-off/timetable guides, building plans/blueprints, maps, diagrams, shutdown procedures, resource guides for first aid, CPR, equipment handling, training and drill procedures, funding sources, resource lists of help available in your community or city, who to contact to get that help, and other mutual aid and regional assistance.

Log emergency supplies to know what is available and where to find it. External resources, such as other police agencies, fire, EMT, hospitals/clinics, ambulance service, utility companies, service agencies, Salvation Army, Red Cross, government agencies for aid, and psychological counseling services, are all part of the disaster plan.

Also to be included are steps that log and monitor “housekeeping” and maintenance procedures to eliminate escalation or compounding of disasters. These might involve fire, explosion, chemical spills, damage from weather or storms, power failures/breakdowns and equipment failure.

Your disaster plan will also address tasks such as monitoring news broadcasts for information on threatened storms, chemical spills, criminal unrest/activities, etc.; mustering personnel to handle first aid, CPR or equipment; designating emergency coordinators and alternates; locating and emplacing barricades for access control; rotating disaster preparedness items and materials that need regular replacing for freshness; locating and emplacing communications equipment (including signs, barrier tape, signals, foot messengers, radios and cell phones); and setting evacuation plans.

By now you understand that your disaster plan deals with complete preparedness. The disaster plan is a working document, a procedural guide that goes step by step. You will be designating personnel not by name, but by job position, stating what each position entails. Set an organizational chart that says who is in charge of which task or step. Designate alternate people (by position, not name) in case someone is out of town, injured or unavailable to do the work.

After designating who does what, train those people in their respective jobs to be sure they know what to do and how to do it. Do refresher training at least annually. Document all training sessions, refresher seminars and exercises, and have trainees sign off when they have completed the training session. Don’t forget about training your volunteers and reserve officers.

The disaster plan must designate an official spokesperson (and alternate) for media contact (again, by job description, not by name). When a disaster strikes, the media wants and needs information, but members of the media should be brought to a central site where the official spokesperson provides information about the situation. This prevents damaging rumors and misinformation.

Be sure all department employees know who the official spokesperson is, how to refer media inquiries to that person and how to refuse requests for information. The media is so pervasive in our society that the normal response of someone who is facing a microphone or reporter’s notebook is to start talking. Department employees must learn to overcome that urge and instead refer all media inquiries to the official spokesperson.

Your plan needs sections that explain what to do if the disaster strikes a key supplier or key equipment you need. List the sources where you can get other materials or services if your key items or suppliers are knocked out by the disaster.

Address the probable vulnerabilities in your geographic area, such as earthquake, tornado or hurricane susceptibility; manufacturing plants with chemical hazards; controversial companies or organizations; frequent power breakdowns/failures because of weather; probable transportation hazards due to an interstate highway, airport or railroad; a famous or popular public attraction such as an amusement park, natural wonder or famous event, etc.

Remember that no two disaster plans will be identical, even for agencies within a relatively close geographic distance. You might glean ideas from another agency’s plan, but be specific to your area.
Set guidelines and procedures for response and recovery. Response to the emergency should protect life and property, protect the environment and others from more effects of the disaster, and restore community operations and transportation/travel as quickly as possible. The response roles must be delineated, with people (by position, not name) and alternates assigned to those roles.

Make a matrix of emergency situations and the degree of probability, severity and priority of response to each. Then plan the responses. Define the procedures needed for each emergency situation, including making inventories of existing trained personnel and available equipment.

The errors and feedback experienced during response and recovery from a drill or an actual disaster should be logged by certain personnel (by position, not name!) so that future amendments for the disaster plan can be done. Don’t forget your own building(s) in your disaster plan. Some disasters may cause your buildings to have collapsed walls/roofing, fallen cabinets, plumbing leaks, loss of electricity, injury to personnel, etc.

After a disaster, people will be upset, worried, hasty, fearful and perhaps not as cautious as they might be ordinarily. That can lead to accidents, thus multiplying your work. Statistics show that only about 15% of accidents are caused by hazardous conditions on the premises. The rest are usually because there has been poor training or a lack of leadership in preventing the accident in the first place. Even sloppy housekeeping can lead to accidents.

Glean information from many sources to determine potential hazards and causes of accidents. Ask maintenance workers, painters and carpenters about hazards, because those people are often the first to spot them. Eliminate such hazards now so that they don’t escalate if a disaster affects your building.

Conduct fire and safety drills at least twice a year. Have procedures for fire and for the hazards likely in your region (earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes or severe winter weather). Document your drills in writing because it may be useful in court if you need to prove that employees were taught what to do and drilled in those procedures. Remember that a disaster can occur during the night or may cause a loss of power, so it may be dark in the building. Be sure people know how to move about in the dark and that any emergency lighting is easily accessible.

Set a procedure by which your own employees are counted and designate a common assembly point. Have a system in place for getting computers and communications equipment clean and back into operation. Periodically check your building’s lights by turning off the regular lighting to see if the exit lights function in the dark. Be sure that doors aren’t painted shut, partially/fully blocked or locked from the outside. Give every employee first aid and CPR training (and regular refreshers) and training in the use of a fire extinguisher.

Such training not only makes the employee more valuable in knowing how to cope with giving immediate aid to someone, but it also makes employees more safety conscious. Set a policy about lifting and when to seek help if a load is too heavy. If the disaster affects your building, people will be rushing about trying to help others and moveing furniture, equipment, etc. Training people how to respond prevents further injuries.

Go around the exterior of your building, too, and look for hazards such as piles of flammable debris, lumber or scraps, paper/newspaper collected for recycling stacked too closely to the building, or pallets too close to the building (in case of fire, they can act as flues).

Have your disaster plan list resources of other law enforcement agencies, security guard companies, air charter companies, hospital locations, catering companies, restoration companies, equipment rental companies, cellular telephone companies and computer rental companies.

In a disaster, these agencies and companies will be responding to other calls, too, but your plan lists them to know where and how to get more help. Remember that in an emergency some services and companies want to be paid in cash, not credit or checks, so alert your fiscal units of such possibilities.

Even in large cities, “other” help may be slow in coming. Much will be up to your agency to handle the crisis and its immediate aftermath. That is part of being a “first” responder. If your agency has good information, effective plans and trained personnel, it can help make the tough decisions that have to be handled during a disaster and its aftermath.

While most departments or regions have at least one vehicle that can serve as an emergency operations center (EOC), be sure your disaster plan includes information about how the EOC can keep things safe and running after a disaster. The EOC could be the place where information is collected, assessed and distributed.

Do you want a fixed or mobile EOC (building, vehicle, trailer)? Where will the EOC be located? How much can you spend on the EOC? Designate and train those who will be a part of the EOC itself. Be sure everyone knows the chain of command and who is in charge of what—by job position, not specific names.

Have back-up communications systems and power supplies. The EOC command center, its dispatch workstation and all subsystems must work seamlessly in radio communications, computer-aided dispatch, records management, intercom and conferencing capability, 9-1-1 and logging recorders.

Equip the EOC vehicle or building with light, ventilation, water, wastewater tanks, power, jacks to support the vehicle, cooking facilities (microwave, coffee maker, camp/other stove, sink, drinking fountain, refrigerator and storage places), rest room facilities with water-conserving flushing systems, full frequency radios including HAM and/or CB radio, GPS units, phones, tables, chairs, bulletin boards, maps and building plans, stationery supplies, radios, TVs, VCR/DVD, space and power for computers, printers, photocopier and FAX machines.

Have food, shelter and personal supplies for the EOC staff. In fact, have enough food and water for everyone on site for 72 hours, tents, cots, and search and rescue equipment, such as fire-fighting equipment, hydraulic jacks, saws, shovels, picks, tape, canvas, basic tools, rope, goggles, gloves, dust masks, hard hats, first aid supplies, resources for rescue dogs, resources for horses or off-road vehicles that can maneuver on broken roads or off-road conditions, GIS equipment, body bags and stretchers.

Multi-agency/multi-jurisdictional interoperability is the “industry driver” among service providers and manufacturers of communications equipment. All the “buzz words” about radio, VoIP, mobile devices, Internet, phones, PCs, bandwidth, wireless, etc. mean you have to learn about, develop and build technical support.

Books, magazines and Internet research will give you the basics, but augment your knowledge by attending the annual meetings and exhibit floors of police organizations and such organizations as the International Security Conference (east and west), International Wireless Communications Expo and American Society for Industrial Security to see what is available.

Figure out whether it fits in the budget and network with others who like—or don’t like—what you are considering. Such conferences help you learn how best to use organizational networking, technological advancements and training to improve your department and its disaster services.

Search the Internet for events at which testing and demonstration of new products are done for things such as police vehicle improving modifications, mobile field reporting software, digital CCTV systems, emergency lighting, vehicle location systems, dispatch and communication systems, in-car video systems and medical emergency first aid equipment. Such events are often co-sponsored by sheriff’s departments, the military or other large organizations, in cooperation with vendors exhibiting their wares and services.

The knowledge you gain at such conferences and demonstrations helps you design and apply the key equipment and systems you need by choice, not chance. Your decisions will be needs-driven, not incident-driven. Budget, personnel, equipment and time will influence your choices, but you can set priorities in all aspects of disaster planning, taking into account the totality of circumstances.

Disaster planning means setting policies and procedures, training to the standards, supervising and documenting everything. Everyone must know what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Be selective in who will supervise. It may not always be the individual longest on the job. It should be someone who can act as a supervisor, making sure that training occurs and that policies are followed. Your disaster plan must be comprehensive and detailed to be a vital component to the safety and recovery of your community.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at Photos courtesy of

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2009

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