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There is an old saying that goes, “There is going to be weather, whether or not.” While this is certainly true, it seems that during the past 12 months, much of this weather has been extreme.
Record temperatures, heavy snows, tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, high winds and heavy rains have all made the headlines. More than this, a significant number of these weather events have severely taxed the fire-rescue service. Add in other natural phenomenon like earthquakes and tsunamis and you have what amounts to a perfect storm of demands being placed on our resources.
One resource that can easily feel the strain is your communications network. That’s why it’s critical to design, test, staff and adequately finance this function with the worst-case scenario in mind.
Natural disasters place an inordinate strain on communications in comparison to other events. Rather than being isolated incidents, these are region wide – affecting thousands of people. These people are going to be calling for help, tying up your 911 center and calling each other tying up commercial telephone resources. These people include your suppression personnel and your telecommunicators, making it likely that at least some of your staff will be faced with damage to their personal property, childcare concerns and transportation issues.
Natural disasters are not over in a single shift. They come and stay, often for a long time. They present challenges of both volume and duration, and your planning must include this fact. Disasters also break things, and many of these things are critical to operations.
Planning for the Worst
So, where does planning begin? With your disaster plans! Pick them up, dust them off and make sure that everything is right. Is all the terminology correct? Are all the communications resources up to date? Are the names and telephone numbers included in your notifications correct? Does each listing have an alternate means of contact in case the first one doesn’t work?
Conduct a disaster-plan review with an eye on the real world. What is the minimal amount of staffing on duty at any time in your communications center? What duties will they be expected to perform in addition to processing the increased amount of emergency calls that can be expected during a crisis? How long will it take them to execute disaster notifications and related functions? Is this time line acceptable? If not, what are alternatives that allow the shedding of work load or assigning these processes elsewhere?
I am unfortunately aware of numerous Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) that are tasked with expectations that far exceed their capacity to perform even on a quiet day. For example, do we honestly believe that a single person on duty will be able to function as both the local dispatcher and regional control during a major fire, let alone a hurricane? The odds of a successful outcome are slim. Inadequately staffed resources – whether they are ladder companies or dispatch centers – cannot perform past a certain level. That’s why it’s important to test your communications disaster plan by working through it. We drill for a reason. And, it’s also critical to establish timelines for update and review. Since many documents are now stored electronically, it’s extremely helpful to create a means of automatically updating your plan when changes are made in supporting documentation.
While scheduled periodic reviews are important, it’s even more important that critical changes be made in real time. For example, if the chief gets a new phone number, it needs to be entered immediately, and not discovered as part of a 90- or 180-day review or, worse yet, during an actual incident. It’s also important that electronic files are accessible to all who need them when they need them and properly backed up on independent devices. This means on two separate servers or PCs that do not sit next to each other and share the same power plug. Laptops are a great way of providing certain types of backup since they are mobile and provide flexibility. Even so-called “thumb drives” can hold quite a bit of information stored in widely recognized formats such as PDF or Word.