Disaster Resource Staging

Release Date: October 3, 2002


"Washington, DC - The United States Fire Administration (USFA) today urged all fire and emergency services departments not to respond to impacted counties and states affected by Hurricane Lili without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities under mutual aid agreements and the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)".

In the wake of Hurricane Lili, a subject I wrote about after 9-11 spun back into the scene again. I received an e-mail, as many in the fire service did, asking responders to exercise discipline and remain at home unless "lawfully dispatched".

Having been both a giver and a recipient of disaster resources, as a "lawfully" deployed asset and as an incident commander, I know the scenario all too well. Well-meaning responders will converge upon any disaster, leaving you (the Incident Commander) challenged with managing their actions as well as supporting them during what is already an impossible situation.

"It is critical that fire and emergency departments across the country remain in their jurisdictions until such time as the affected states request assistance," said R. David Paulison, United States Fire Administrator. "State and local mutual aid agreements are in place as is the Emergency Management Assistance Compact and those mechanisms will be used to request and task resources needed in the affected areas.

"Self-dispatching of well-meaning volunteer assistance is not needed and will complicate the response and recovery effort. The nature of first responders is to immediately respond and help their neighbors, however we need to show restraint and respond only when requested."

As Incident Commander, one of the most daunting tasks ahead is the management of incoming resources and deployment in accordance with YOUR plan. Elements of successful resource management require establishing an incident management system, restricting access, and staging resources. Disaster staging includes determining what resources you have available, providing orderly acquisition of those resources and appropriate assignment to implement the incident action plan.

When faced with the potential for disaster, the emergency organization, in cooperation with community leaders, should develop a resource management plan ahead of time to manage the flood of help that is going to arrive. The plan should include:

  • Procedures for requesting resources
  • Identified control and isolation strategies
  • Staging information
  • General assignments for known mutual aid resources and,
  • A decision on what to do with unsolicited external resources.

Organizations charged with emergency response in your community need to, almost immediately after identifying the potential for disaster in your community, plan for the resources coming in from outside your immediate jurisdiction. If your organization/community currently doesn't have internal resources to manage certain facets of the emergency, you are most certainly going to request external resources when you need them. Since that will be the case, the idea is to find out where the nearest regional or state resource is and determine how to notify them. Aside from the obvious benefits, preparing in advance keeps you from being tempted to use rogue teams prior to the real help showing up.

In many communities, there are already established procedures for requesting mutual aid resources, be they through your mutual aid organization or through your local or state Emergency Preparedness group. The Mutual Aid request procedures should be in writing and all players should know their part BEFORE the disaster hits. Any person in your jurisdiction with the potential to be an incident commander (which is everyone in most departments) should be intimate with the details of enacting the plan.

The disaster plan must identify control and isolation strategies not just for site operations, but in the event of major community-wide incidents, for the entire jurisdiction. In our community, stopping traffic at the bridge is pretty effective. Hilton Head Island has one way on and one way off, so unless the barbarians invade our shores by boat or aircraft, we're not likely to have a lot of difficulty isolating things. Your community may be vastly different; knowing the control points and having an agreement with law enforcement specifically identifying where the control points are and who should be controlling those points is paramount. Otherwise, be prepared to face the inevitable freelancing that goes on at a major disaster. In a "small" scene like a building collapse, denying entry may include contracting a local fence company or bringing in snow fence or fabric construction barriers. As you can imagine, isolating an entire community tends to be a little more difficult, thus the need to plan ahead to provide the appropriate amount of coverage at the right places.

Staging information is important ahead of time. Identification of areas with good access and egress and of sufficient size for the responding resources may be easy, but consider the normal use of that area and plan for alternate sites. That mall parking lot might be full when you decide to use it. Having a site that is on the major route in from the mutual aid areas is a good idea, or plan to have adequate signage on hand that can be deployed to direct these units in to where you want them corralled. At the staging site, the Staging Officer and his staff should get as much pertinent information on the arriving crews, apparatus and equipment as possible. Knowing what is available is half the battle when the incident commander is requesting a particular specialty or type of company.

Preplanned response of mutual aid companies that you already know will be used in a certain capacity, like a heavy rescue squad or a hazardous materials unit, should be agreed upon ahead of time so that they know the staging sites and the area, and you know the equipment and the crew capability. Give those companies an idea of what assignments you may expect of them ahead of time and then they can more appropriately plan to bring the right tools and staffing. Letting the State or regional USAR Teams (if you have them) know where you would like to put a Base of Operations (BOO) can solve a lot of logistical problems up front, especially since it will give you an opportunity to find out what to expect from those types of resources and they can let you in on what they will need. If your community is extremely forward-thinking, they could even have pre-positioned phone pedestals or power hook-ups put in for the BOO, especially since the power and phones aren't always out during events like these.

Most importantly, a decision should be made ahead of time in regard to the management of unsolicited resources. Let me reassure you, if you have a disaster, they will come. Most are well-intentioned and have skills that will be needed, or have the desire to backfill positions so you can relieve your personnel, who are probably running on adrenaline after a day or two. There are a few, however, that will show up unprepared, both in training and for the rigors of the emergency, who will tax your plan rather than enhance it. If your goal is to control resources and manage them to accomplish your tactical objectives, consider these strategies prior to deploying them:

  • Divert them to the staging area before they get to the isolation zone and stage them in a different section from requested mutual aid units until you can find out some information on them. Isolating these units insures that they don't get deployed simply because they were standing in the right place at the right time.

  • Find out how many personnel they brought and account for them on your board. Determine personnel qualifications, what equipment they have brought and what apparatus they have with them. As a requested unit on a deployment once, we rolled into the staging area prepared (as we were asked to by the AHJ) for water rescue. When we reported, the IC asked if we could work as a HAZMAT unit. I answered that we also were trained and certified HAZMAT Technicians, but we didn't bring any of that equipment. They had plenty of water teams, so we were relegated to filling in stations (in which we saw more action than if we had been doing either Water Rescue or HAZMAT).

  • Finally, single responders (unless we know them personally) don't get in as emergency personnel. As harsh as that sounds, I have a lot of problems with a lone responder showing up offering their services. Maybe Red Cross can use them, or the local churches, or the soup kitchen, but I'm not going to put a guy into a Level A suit based on his testimony. I have seen my share of cowboys, and they tend to show up alone. That may not be fair to the firefighter who just happened to be caught in the middle of the situation and wants to help, but as the IC, you have a responsibility not only to making sure that the scene is adequately staffed, but for the safety of everyone there. Without any background, there's no reassurance as to whether this person is the leading expert in WMD or some clown with a firefighter fantasy thing going.

Especially with the scene security issues we have to deal with in these changed times, if someone is on scene and claims to be a responder, they should have some identification. I have been in the position of "Good Samaritan" plenty of times before, so I carry picture identification and I respect the locals- if they don't need me (or are unsure of my qualifications), then I'm willing to step behind the barricades. Just remember, that as the lawful responder, respect the fact that these people are willing to help, and don't talk to them like they're trash; simply advise them that you appreciate their assistance, but you have no need for their services. Everyone on both sides of that situation should be able to understand where everyone is coming from.

By recognizing the desire of people to serve one another, especially during times of profound need, we can utilize the responders to disasters to benefit our communities. The key, however, is insuring an organized and planned deployment of personnel and equipment in order to solve the problems at hand, rather than just throwing whatever we have in the pot at the time at it. By doing this, as the IC, you will get a better grip on the scene and be able to insure site security, account for personnel, and deploy the proper resources necessary which in the long run, is the recipe for success.