Are You Prepared for a Major Catastrophe?

As I watched footage of the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, the first thing that came to mind was a statement used widely within the fire/rescue community: "It is not if a disaster will strike, but, when will it strike?"

As the technology of today's society brings the events to our living rooms and office computers we need to once again focus on this philosophical statement that is tossed around the firehouse on a regular basis.

Are we ready, when it happens in our community?

Our preparedness has to be an ongoing process that never sleeps. Many times we in the fire service tend to fall into the pace of society and just "go with the flow".

An event of this magnitude works as a wake up call to those not directly involved, motivating us to check out our own systems and plans.

The men and women of the Minneapolis Fire Department and all of the supporting agencies have done an exemplary job in handling this incident.

What the rest of us need to do is check our own backyards and make sure we are ready for, not if but, when it happens in our community.

Let this be the catalyst that gets us to review our:

  • Emergency Action Plans - are they up to date (for some of you out there; do you even know where they are?)
  • Training programs -Plan training drills with other agencies that you would be working with at an incident of this type or at any specialized rescue incident that may happen in your community.

"Become good neighbors" - No matter how large or small your community or department is, you can not stand alone, when an incident of this nature strikes. Be prepared to help your neighbor and don't be too proud to ask for their help if it happens in your area.

The fire service is a great user of acronyms. (Actually next to the military we are probable one of the greatest users of them.)

Let's look at one that we use in daily conversation and see how it could be of service to us during a disaster of this level.

ICS - Incident Command System

How many of us talk the talk, but, do not really walk the walk?

Do we have practice in absorbing a multitude of agencies into our working world without overloading our ability to remain not only in command, but, to do it and still be in "control"?

When I say "control" I am not referring to the authoritative dictator that talks louder to show all that they are in "control" but to the incident commander that through many hours of study and practice knows how to benefit from and trusts the incident command system we have in place to help us at an incident such as the one at the Interstate 35W bridge.

Unified command is going to be the incident commander's friend at this event and others like it. Large numbers of agencies and multiple operational periods are but a few of the components of this response.

Incident management teams and the systems they bring show their true value at a time like this. The utilization of basic forms and documentation tools provides us with a way to bring the volumes of resources together in an organized and functional manner.

However, the day of the event is not the day to begin your learning curve with these forms. Training and drills under controlled non-emergency conditions is when we need to have these forms in our hands for the first time.

From taking these incident command courses within my own departments training system as well as at more formal training courses at our state fire academy and the National Fire Academy, I can say from my experience, the first time you pick up any of these forms, they can be rather intimidating.

After repetitive practice with them you will begin to find that comfort zone. An even more important revelation you will experience is, that they are some of the most useful tools we have available to us when large scale events take place in our communities.

The final segment of our department's operational capabilities we should review is our specialized rescue capabilities.

Each decade seems to have had a target group, In the 1970s-1980s it was Hazardous Materials, 1980s-1990s Confined Space Rescue took the for front, 1990s-2000s, Technical Rescue surfaced and ever since the tragedies that took place on 9/11, Terrorism and the preparedness for it has joined the ranks of the fire service.

Unfortunately much of the responses we train for fall under the category of, "High Risk - Low Frequency"

Because of this our focus on a daily basis tends to drift from the "High Risk" component to the "Low Frequency" side when budgets are tight and municipalities large and small are trying to stretch an already choked pocketbook.

The demands placed on any department when an incident such as the one in Minneapolis takes place should once again wake us to that fact that yes it can happen to us and when it does we will be relying on these specialized resources to carry us through the tough times.

One of my company officers early in my career had a saying that seems to fit the fire service as much today as it did 20 years ago. "We are paper cowboys" his meaning behind this statement referred to the fact that many of leaders at the time were more focused on having SOPs and SOGs and being able to show them off.

What we have at times neglected, is the fact that no matter how good we look on paper if we do not practice our trade out in the field, we will not be up for the challenge when it arises.

By continuing to grow and refine our systems and skills, the fire/rescue service will be much more prepared when it happens to us, than if we sit back and relax until the day when it happens.

Keep your thoughts and prayers with the people and emergency responders of Minneapolis as they work through this disaster. While at the same time look within your selves and make sure your department and community are as prepared as possible for when it happens in your backyard.


Bob Duemmel is a captain with the City of Rochester, NY, Fire Department. He is currently assigned as the commander of the Special Operations Unit. Prior to this he was assigned to the departments Heavy Rescue Company. He has over 22 years with Rochester Fire Department as well as having served as a Crash Rescue Specialist in the U.S. Air Force. He has an Associate's Degree in Fire Protection Technology from Corning Community College, Corning NY. He is a New York State and Nationally certified Fire Instructor specializing in technical rescue. He is a principle and lead instructor with Tech Rescue Corporation, an international technical rescue training and consulting company.

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