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Mutual Aid When Disaster Strikes

Written by Jim Weiss

With four major hurricanes striking Florida within six weeks in August and September 2004, mutual aid efforts had to be swift and coordinated. How did responding jurisdictions make sure they were part of the solution and not part of the problem? Three agencies from Florida’s Tampa Bay area—Largo Police Department, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, and Clearwater Police Department—shared their experiences and lessons learned.

So that some damaged areas were not overwhelmed with help while others were neglected, mutual aid efforts were coordinated through the law enforcement desk at the state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Tallahassee. This organization received all of the calls for assistance as well as the offers of aid from unaffected departments all over the state. By recording the resources each agency had available as well as their locations, EOC was able to assign a task tracking number to each responding agency and send them to where they were most needed.

Hurricane Charley was the first major hurricane to hit. On August 13, this Category 4 hurricane, with winds of 145 mph, made landfall in the Punta Gorda-Port Charlotte area on Florida’s southwestern coast at 3:45 on Friday afternoon. Charley’s earlier track was erratic with predictions sending it first to Punta Gorda, then switching to Tampa Bay.

At the last minute, Charley took hard right to Punta Gorda. This swiftly moving hurricane rushed up the center of the state, passing over Orlando where many evacuees from Tampa Bay had headed, and moving out to sea near Daytona Beach. Almost as soon as the winds had subsided, agencies from all over the state offered help to the stricken areas.

Largo Police Department

Largo Police Department had had experience with mutual aid after Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead Florida in 1992 as a Category 4 hurricane with wind gusts up to 175 mph. When Hurricane Charley struck, the Largo Police Department had five officers, a sergeant, a lieutenant, cruisers, and their command bus immediately available. The state EOC assigned them to Charlotte County where the need was greatest. Over the next three weeks, 21 officers rotated duty in Punta Gorda, returning home when Hurricane Frances was scheduled to pass over Largo.

The lieutenant acted as liaison, allowing the Punta Gorda Police Department to take the lead in assignments. Most of the Largo officers worked at night. They were mainly used to patrol for curfew violations and respond to domestic calls and alarms, as well as monitor price gouging and unlicensed contractors.

When a stabbing was investigated, Largo assisted but the home agency took the lead to avoid problems later with court time and follow-up. Looting was not as much of an issue as it was after Hurricane Andrew, perhaps because the Punta Gorda area is less densely populated than Homestead and also because of the concentrated police presence.

Each day the lieutenant attended coordinated briefings with the local county EOC, along with other agencies such as Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Guard, and the county Emergency Operations Manager. When Largo Police left Pinellas County to assist in Punta Gorda, they took everything they would need with them so they could be self-sufficient.

They brought enough food and water to last several weeks, the command bus, and their cruisers. After getting permission, they set up their operations not too far from the sheriff’s office at a Masonic Lodge that was closed for the summer. A week into the aid, they rented a portable office in Ft. Myers (about 30 miles away), brought it to their staging area, and used it for sleeping. HAZMAT decontamination showers were used as regular showers.

Because street signs were knocked down or blown away, they bought street maps at convenience stores on the trip south, and were also given a grid book that had directions to various streets. At times, a Punta Gorda Police Department officer rode with one of the Largo officers, but at other times, Largo was on its own.

Communications could have been a problem, but their command center dispatched officers using Mutual Aid 4, the state’s common 800 MHz channel reserved for mutual aid situations.

Food was either eaten out of the can or prepared in the microwave on the generator-supported command bus. In addition, local restaurants set up stands to serve food to responding law enforcement and other rescue personnel at no charge.

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office had developed disaster preparedness plans after Hurricanes Hugo (1989), Andrew (1992), and Opal (1995) hit Florida. By 6:00 that Friday evening, it became clear that Hurricane Charley was headed toward Charlotte County instead of Pinellas County. PCSO called the state EOC and let them know they had a team ready and resources available. When early reports of the damage came in from Port Charlotte, PCSO received its tracker number and by midnight the first team of about 25 deputies, mechanics, and medics was ready to go.

Because they knew there would be no electrical power and therefore no access to cash through ATMs or credit cards, the team requisitioned $16,000 in cash from narcotics buy money. This was needed for gas, per diem, hotels, etc.

Four teams on five-day shifts were sent to Port Charlotte across Charlotte Harbor from Punta Gorda. Responding teams were made up of individuals from all departments—patrol, special operations, detectives—so that no one division in the department was heavily impacted.

The sheriff’s office kept a core group on site made up of experienced deputies as well as medics, a mechanic, the command vehicle, and an all terrain vehicle, but also tried to send deputies who had not experienced a disaster. It was felt that they would return as better deputies, better able to deal with a similar disaster at home. The sheriff’s office now has about 150 deputies experienced in working in a devastated area.

Most PCSO cruisers are equipped with laptops and Global Positioning System (GPS) software. The sheriff’s office interfaced the GPS with a Computer Aided Design (CAD) system so that the data links to a national mapping program that is used throughout the US. This GPS system shows where any vehicle in the agency is located at any given time using a map that can be magnified to show street names and intersections.

A small blue car is a cruiser on duty, and a red one indicates that the overhead flashing lights are on. By being able to link to national maps, the sheriff’s office was also able follow other PCSO vehicles in Pensacola following Hurricane Ivan, and in Palm Bay after Hurricane Frances.

This GPS system was invaluable to the deputies responding to Port Charlotte because they could look at the map and see what street they were on. Even without street signs, they were able to drive about independently, freeing up local law enforcement for other duties.

Pinellas County deputies sent a group ahead to scout out gas stations where they could top off their gas tanks on the way down to Port Charlotte—since without electricity gas pumps do not work—as well as find rooms in a hotel that they were able to use for all of the rotating teams.

Car to car communication was very poor, so a team brought down a stand-alone county communications tower. This was set up near where the command buses from several other law enforcement agencies were located. Radios were programmed to the tower, and it was able to provide communications for nine other agencies.

While patrolling for looters constituted their night duties, during the day the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office was able to engage in humanitarian outreach. Deputies established comfort stations to distribute ice and water, but soon realized that only those people with operational vehicles were able to get there. They loaded up supplies and took the ice and water into the neighborhoods, for which the community was extremely grateful.

The SWAT medics that PCSO took with them proved to be valuable resources. The heat index often reached 110 degrees and deputies became dehydrated even though they drank water. The medics were able to restore their electrolytes, as well as aid the community in general.

Clearwater Police Department

Florida EOC sent the Clearwater Police Department to Kissimmee, an area just south of Orlando in the center of the state. After Hurricane Charley came on shore in the Punta Gorda-Port Charlotte area, it swept over the Orlando-Kissimmee area with wind gusts up to 105 mph. While the damage was not as extensive as Punta Gorda, trees were down, roofs destroyed, and power was off.

Kissimmee Police Department had been prepared and ready to aid the Tampa Bay area when Hurricane Charley was set to strike there, but Charley changed direction and within two hours, they were the unexpected victims. Many officers’ homes were not boarded up, and they had to leave their families to get their city back to normal.

At the Osceola Mall, CPD joined the American Red Cross, National Guard, and FEMA. Their first duty was to set up a traffic plan for distribution center, which was servicing about 15,000 people per day at peak times.

Clearwater Police sent members of its Emergency Response Team (12 at a time) to Kissimmee, as well as SWAT medics, the SWAT medic van and the command bus. The SWAT medics were able to help their own officers and those from other agencies, as well as the public. They performed 186 medical treatments during their stay. When the IV fluids they brought with them were gone, the hospital gave them boxes of additional fluid—without red tape. The hospital felt that every citizen the medics helped was one less person who would be taxing the emergency room.

Clearwater Police also arrived self-sufficient. It brought its own MREs and water, as well as the command bus, which was used as a law enforcement meeting spot. The computers and cameras in the command bus were invaluable. CPD also brought tents and canopies to use as shade for triage and meals, and a flatbed, utility “Mule”—similar to a golf cart—for access to some areas.

The duties CPD performed included creating a traffic pattern so that cars could drive right up to the tractor trailers to pick up water and ice, directing traffic, performing security details, and, toward the end, interacting directly with the public by distributing water and ice. At the end of each day, a debriefing was held to record what had happened and what could have been done better.

During a disaster, aid is willingly given, but eventually the financial aspect of officer overtime, fuel, vehicles, food, water, etc. must be paid for. Assisting Punta Gorda Police Department cost Largo Police Department about $65,000; assisting Port Charlotte cost the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office about $300,000.

Reimbursement for most of this outlay is available through FEMA and the state. In Florida, FEMA will reimburse 75% of the cost and the state and the jurisdiction make up the difference. However, in order to be reimbursed, the agency must first pay the money up front. Coordinating aid efforts through the EOC and keeping good records are extremely important if an agency wants to receive reimbursement from FEMA.

Lessons Learned

After seeing the various staging areas used by the electric company, Largo Police is revising its plan should a disaster strike the city. They initially planned to have all officers ready at a central location; now they are considering using multiple locations. Blocked roads to and from a central location would make travel difficult, but if officers and supplies were in several locations, the city would be more completely covered. Also, Largo is looking at exactly how it would distribute supplies to the citizens—which would be the best parking lots to use, which locations would give them the best access to the community.

The PCSO realized the value in the reports and the report forms they had already prepared. Deputies were able to call in their reports and these were transcribed in real time. They added to the reports each day, including what they had observed, suggestions, and needs discovered. Other reports recorded such things as hours on duty, gas, cash advances, and the use of the command bus for 20 days. These became after action reports and acted as documentation for FEMA reimbursement.

The CPD learned from this experience factors that needed to be included in their own hurricane preparedness plan. Know things such as where you will be sleeping, especially in high winds. Where will you get food and water? Realize that any jurisdiction can have a direct hit, and you, too, are vulnerable. Plan for the worst case scenario well in advance. Be adaptable.

Mutual aid helps bring normality back to the lives of impacted deputies/officers so they can do their work more easily and effectively. It also changes the lives of the aiding officers. And it creates a bond among those responding. As one office put it, “In a disaster, there are no separate logos or patches. There is only one uniform.”

Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER.
Mickey Davis is a Florida-based journalist.


Suggestions for Agencies Responding to a Disaster

Be sure your mutual aid agreements are updated regularly so your deputies/officers know exactly what they have the authority to do.

Make two checklists of what you will need ahead of time—one for deputies/officers and one for the command—so that preparation to leave can be carried out quickly.

Stick to the basics. Sometimes the most basic tools are the most valuable. CPD found that the chain saws they brought with them were used the most. Many trees were down so they were used to clear roads for first responders as well as to get people out.

Bring suitable uniforms for the weather—in this case heat and thunderstorms. Without electricity and air conditioning, normal Class B uniforms were too hot—BDUs with t-shirts and boonie hats for the sun were better.

Have a plan, but be flexible. Every plan doesn’t necessarily fit every situation.

Bring all of your own supplies, including the aerosol cans, Fix-A-Flat, to inflate flat tires. With so much debris on the roads including roofing nails and glass, flat tires are a given.

Coordinate with EOC. Everyone wants to respond immediately to a disaster, while what may be needed is a calculated response over a period of time.

Arrive prepared and self-contained so as not to burden the agency you are helping or impact the community. Forgotten items may be hard to find after a disaster. Potable water is also important because water main breaks and flooding may contaminate the water supply.

Adapt to the way the agency you are helping does things to make it as easy as possible on them. Be prepared to do whatever job needs to be done.

Allow the agency you are assisting to take the lead.

Remember that sometimes the most helpful jobs may not directly involve law enforcement duties, especially for assisting police departments from out-of-state. After Hurricane Andrew, aiding officers checked on the families of impacted officers, often repairing roofs and covering damaged windows. This allowed the local officers to do their jobs without worrying about their own families and homes.

Coordinate with the host agency so that everyone knows what officers are doing. Remember that they are trying to run disaster cleanup while living in the middle of it.

Don’t forget that there may be staffing issues at home, such as filling the slots of people who have left to assist.

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2005

Rating : 10.0


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