Great Comfort Rarely Brings Great Growth

The past few weeks have been extraordinarily different. For those of you outside of the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut areas, you may need a bit more information upon which to base your understanding of what I am about to say. My friends the Jersey Shore was obliterated by the forces of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29. The devastation has been beyond belief. 

Let me suggest that I have been responding to storm-related incidents for many decades now, but this storm was one for the record books. To put the impact of this storm into perspective let me simply state that theNew Jerseyshore area of my youth is gone forever.

Let me broaden the focus for you. The folks on Staten Island, the Rockaway area of New York City, and Long Island also got their respective clocks cleaned. My area was spared the destruction. For those of us inland folks, there was a lot of inconvenience, and some wind-related damage, but whole areas of the shoreline were literally washed away. The storm surge from the hurricane created new inlets where the ocean met the bay along our barrier-island areas. 

As I sat in church the other day, Senior Pastor Scott Brown's message to our congregation started the juices rumbling around in my brain. The title of this piece comes directly from his sermon. His point was well taken. Rarely do we achieve great things in life during those times when we are living a comfortable and supportive life. 

It makes sense if you think about it. If you do not have to work hard or do a lot, it is quite probable that you won't achieve any sort of breakthrough success or personal improvement. In the absence of challenges to our reality, it has been my experience that complacency will creep in and fill up all of the available space on your mental dance card. 

My friends, it has been my good fortune to have been in the emergency response business for nearly five decades. I have been through forest fires, floods and earthquakes in Alaska. My associates and I experienced a number of typhoons and monsoons in the Philippine Islands and Vietnam. In addition it has been my pleasure (ha ha) to have served during blizzards, tropical storms, hurricanes and conflagrations in here in New Jersey.

However, I have now lived long enough to see the results of the worst storm in the recorded weather history of New Jersey; the worst storm in over 100 years. My associates and I here in Adelphia have seen and done a great deal in the last few weeks. Hurricane Sandy has devastated many areas in my home state.

I spent the better part of five days living in the fire stations of our district with my fellow firefighters here in Adelphia. We moved from place to place during the run up to the storm, handling a wide range of minor emergencies in our neck of the woods. As the senior man on duty, my role was initially limited to being the radio room operator. So my whole view of the storm was limited to say the least, but since we were dispatching from our own fire station radio room, it was my good fortune to be at the heart of the action.

There were protocols for our storm emergency operations. Let me assure you of the fact that our fire company followed established township protocols. Calls came to me by phone from the emergency operations center (EOC) and I sent the units from my station or the units from our Station #2. Our chief laid out the district so that each station was responsible for a set area. We did not want our equipment racing from place to place and ending up out of position for any incoming runs. This worked very well.

At the height of our storm operations we had crews on all of our rigs making responses. As you might imagine, we were quite busy, but nowhere as busy as our fire colleagues along the shore areas. Their responses number in the hundreds. Our hearts were with them.

As I watched the television coverage of the disaster on my laptop computer in the Adelphia Firehouse, the images on the screen haunted me. I saw the Jersey Shore of my youth erased from the map. I saw numerous places up and down the coastline where the bay area met the Atlantic Ocean in areas all up and down the Jersey Shore.

The homes in these areas were swamped, shifted on their foundations, or simply washed away. In other places scores of homes burned to the ground because fire forces were unable to reach the scene of the blazes. I saw the places where my wife and I took the kids to the amusement rides along the shore wiped out. My heart goes out to my fellow citizens in the Garden State who have lost their homes and all of the things they cherish. 

As I sat here at the heart of the operation, I had time to observe what was happening, listen to the radio transmissions, as well as listen to the frustrations of people whose operations were not going according as they anticipated. I also had the opportunity to hear some really silly things. I heard orders issued which were not cleared with the people being affected by the orders. There were a number of encounters which I sincerely hope will not be repeated in the future.

A number of problems cropped up when people started making decisions which impacted our fire company without letting us know that something was going to happen. This occurred on more than one instance. My fire company was fairly well prepared for the emergency. Both of our stations were equipped with large-size emergency generators. The unit in our main station is powered off of main gas and our Station #2 has a propane-fired unit. 

In the run up to the emergency, our officers insured that supplies were stocked and that we had an adequate supply of food for both stations. Preparations were made to staff both stations and at the height of the storm we had 30 people on duty. We had both cots and air mattresses. All members were advised that they had to bring their own bed linens. Over the course of the storm, we were able to handle all calls for assistance from our stations without the necessity of people responding from their homes. 

The return of power to our area was very spotty. Station #1 got power back on Nov. 1, while Station #2 remained on generator power into the following week. Many areas of our fire district did not get power back until Nov. 12. Of course it didn't help that we got smacked with a blizzard on Nov. 8. Many places which had gotten their power back lost it again. Over time our responses began to return to normal levels. 

Since the whole storm-response episode began on Oct. 29, I kept a log of ideas and events which I could be used as the basis for future planning and preparation for future disaster operations. I have listed them in bullet form so that you can review them and consider the need for them in your jurisdiction:

  1. Planning
  • Make sure that you are a part of your community’s on-going emergency management program. (Do not be the Lone Ranger)
  • Get to know all of the members of your community’s emergency managing team (people work better on a first-name basis)
  • Check your egos at the door (mandatory)
  • Have a plan which has been created by your community’s disaster team. A plan created by a cooperative team is far better than one imposed from above
  • Periodically drill on that plan
  • Use that plan
  • Avoid deviating from that plan to the greatest extent possible
  • Make sure everyone has the same set of plans
  • Exercise and update the plans from time to time
  • If you have to operate on the fly during fluid situations, stay within shouting distance of you standard operating procedures (SOP’s) or general operating guidelines (GOG’s)
  • Do not make assumptions or issue orders for other people without contacting them and getting their input and agreement
  • Do not give away the bread and butter belonging to someone else
  1. Logistics
  • Make sure that you have food, water, and ice
  • Top off all vehicle fuel tanks
  • If you have sufficient time, schedule a fuel delivery for your departmental tanks
  • Make sure that you have fuel, batteries, etc.
  1. Staffing
  • Schedule your staff if possible
  • Utilize your mutual aid as needed (bear in mind that weather emergencies can add a great deal to the response times for your neighbors)
  • Guard against enthusiasm which can lead to people exhausting themselves over the course of several days
  • Rotate your staff to the greatest extent possible
  • Rotate your drivers to the greatest extent possible
  • Think of your operations as a campaign and not an individual battle (In other words, pace yourself for a long-term operation)
  • Insure that your people take periodic naps and sleep breaks
  • Insist that your people go home from time-to-time to check on their homes and their families
  1. Inter-agency Communications
  • People must not assume anything
  • Do not issue orders that will require other people to do things for which they are not trained or equipped
  • Do not give away other people's resources without first gaining an agreement that such resources are truly available
  • Set your agreements in place well ahead of time
  • Drill on them periodically
  • If you have to operate on the fly, try to keep your SOPs/GOG's in mind
  • Do not let your guard down when it comes to safety issues
  • Just because it is a declared emergency, do not use that as an excuse to take unsafe shortcuts
  • Make sure that you allocate your operations among the available operational radio frequencies
  • Stay where you belong when operating on the radio
  • Do not hog the radio
  1. Apparatus
  • Make sure that all apparatus and inspected and prepared prior to the onset of emergency operations
  • Make sure that all apparatus are topped off with fuel
  • Drive as carefully as possible
  • Be aware of the impact of any storm may have on the trees and wires which line our roads
  • Do not drive into obviously flooded (or heavy snow-covered) areas
  • Limit the number of pieces of apparatus which are responding to the routine alarm, Carbon monoxide, wires down, and similar calls for assistance (we used our brush truck, our commissioner's pickup, and our fire police vehicle a great deal to check out alarm calls)

Not everyone took the time to get ready for Hurricane Sandy. I know of one local fire department which did absolutely nothing to prepare for the storm. They did not have any extra food at the station, nor did they deem it necessary to mount a storm standby. 

When they lost power, they had to strip one of the generators from their pumper and use it to provide partial power to their building. They didn't have a storm standby and there were a number of runs which they could not answer because they could not turn out a properly-staffed crew. As a matter of fact, their chief told our chief not to count on them for awhile. I guess they were lucky that their citizens never found out how poorly equipped and prepared they were to protect their community.

Unfortunately, there are those fire departments along the Jersey Shore who took a direct smack on the chin. The storm surge was terrible when combined with the new moon high tides. They never really stood a chance. They will come back, but it will take quite awhile. We inland fire departments are doing what we can to help out our brothers and sisters down the shore. My fire company has sent standby equipment and personnel to cover for shore units who needed a break from their storm-battered duties. 

Many among us have experienced a time of great challenge here in New Jersey. Our associates in Delaware, New York and Connecticut have shared in the turmoil. This was not a time of great comfort. It was a time of tremendous challenge during which there was no great comfort level. We all worked hard to get the job done and would be really remiss is we failed to take the lessons learned to make our departments better prepared for the next bad storm. 

Do not waste time. Begin to get ready for the next storm which might not be all that far into the future. Predictions of a greater-than-normal snow season are already coming in from the weather bureaus. The time to prepare for your next major emergency is now. There will be those who try to convince you that planning is not necessary. Pay no attention to them. Get on with getting ready for the next disaster. Take care and stay safe.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse contributing editor, is a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark Fire Department as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and life member of the National Fire Protection Association. He is vice president of the Institution of Fire Engineers-USAmerica. Dr. Carter holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.