Big Things Do Happen In Small Fire Departments

Steve Meyer describes the aftermath of the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 outside a Pennsylvania community of 250 people.


Sept. 11, 2001, conjures up myriad gut-wrenching memories for Americans - and we in the fire service in particular. On that dreadful day, while the eyes of the world were focused on the two disasters that took place in our nation's largest city and the seat of our country's power, another...


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Emergency management systems. Every community or small fire department in the country falls under the folds of a emergency management system, usually under the management of a local emergency management office (EMA). Plans have probably been developed for application to disasters at the county or parish level and for certain the state level. Maybe the plan is collecting dust on a bookshelf at the fire station or being used as a doorstop in the mayor's office, but the time to blow the dust off and familiarize yourself with it is not when a tornado has just flattened half the structures in your fire district or someone just blew up city hall. An hour or two perusing the plan and a brief training session for volunteers on what the plan is all about will reap huge dividends when implementation of the plan is actually needed.

When "the big one" happens, you become part of a bigger system. Your department's incident management system plugs into the larger scenario playing out. Make certain you understand the system and your department's role.

A fire department will find itself, like Shanksville, working with agencies and people you may never have imagined would be involved in a disaster incident. Agencies like the EPA, FEMA, the FBI, the National Guard, public health, etc., will show up depending on the nature of the incident. Some may have jurisdiction over your incident and your department. Knowing who these key players are and how your department will interface with them before "the big one" is integral to smooth operations at the incident.

Your jurisdiction's responsibility. The FBI, the CIA, EPA, FEMA, the National Guard, the governor and a host of officials with big badges in their wallets may have shown up, but that doesn't mean you're done. You cannot absolve yourself of responsibility - the incident happened in your jurisdiction. Your department's leadership may not be at the peak of the command structure, but you will be in the command loop.

Where your department stands in the command structure is determined by the nature of the incident and disaster management plans. You won't go home until those above you tell you you're done. Have a plan in place for keeping personnel on scene for the duration of operations at the incident. This may mean you have to rely on mutual aid from a broad area.

Personnel. You will see things at a disaster you've never seen before and the insides of firefighters are going to hurt - they need emotional support. We've learned from past experiences in the fire and ambulance service that we can't expect our personnel to stow the ghastly things they experience inside indefinitely. Contact a CISD team immediately and have it on scene. Watch for clues that indicate personnel on your crews are experiencing stress. Make sure you give your people a break no matter how insistent they are to stay on. That's a problem with many fire and emergency people - they become so focused they will commit to an incident until they drop. Above all else, look out for your own people first and foremost at a disaster.

Dealing with the media. Like Shanksville, you will be under the watchful eye of local media for sure, probably the national, if not the worldwide media when "the big one" hits. Establish a PIO if possible and a secure area to keep the press in and away from critical incident operations and sensitive areas where there may be bodies or evidence.

One of the best ways to keep the newspeople at bay is by providing frequent updates and conferences. If you keep the press in limbo too long, reporters will go to extreme means to obtain information that may prove disruptive or embarrassing to the department. At the Flight 93 incident, the media were brought to the incident scene at an appropriate time on buses, so they could be controlled and would not wander. Shaffer advises it is critical to talk to the media as quickly as possible.

Training. Disaster training is different from normative fire department training. As far as hands-on operations at an incident, a fire department is probably not going to be called on to do anything it's not prepared for. What is required to grasp the concepts of how a disaster would be managed are incident simulations, usually done in the form of tabletop exercises.

Tabletop exercises, though not as exciting as a house burn, provide experience in disaster management and also interaction with key players in disaster incident management. Some local EMAs are good about conducting tabletop exercises and disaster simulations on an annual basis.