Emergency Services Stretched to the Limit

A 500-mile-wide Hurricane named Sandy caused death and destruction from the Northeast to the Great Lakes at the end of October and beginning of November 2012. One of the worst storms to hit the area in three decades, it caused the worst flooding in some area in nearly 200 years.

First responders, including fire, police and EMS, were stretched to the breaking point responding to numerous calls for assistance. Civilians living in flood zones or close to the ocean, bays or any type of water who did not heed the warnings and orders to evacuate eventually clogged communications centers by requiring immediate assistance. Firefighters placed themselves at unusual, great and, in some cases, extreme personal risk.

Emergency resources were stretched to the breaking point. Calls for fires and people trapped by rising water had to be written down and dispatched upon availability of apparatus finishing other emergency calls. Many acts of heroism by first responders may never be documented as thousands of people needing assistance were removed by first responders who went above and beyond the call of duty. In many instances, they were aided by civilians who came to the aid of their neighbors. Not only did they respond to pleas for help, but many first responders lost their homes or they received extensive damage. These responders had no time to worry about their own families, but did what they had to do to get the job done during the storm. Here’s just one example: in one Ocean County, NJ, fire department, 37 of its 41 members lost their homes. In the same county, 40 of 140 fire stations apparently were destroyed or heavily damaged.


Two months after the storm, extensive aid was visible in many forms. The National Guard, national and state urban search and rescue (USAR) teams, swiftwater rescuers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross and dozens of other agencies are on the ground in many locations rendering assistance by offering food and shelter. In some areas, volunteers helped homeowners rip out and discard sheet rock, furniture and other items ruined by flooding. Volunteers came from the military, colleges and off-duty firefighters and were aided by city agencies working to clean up the mess.

Many lessons learned will come out of this “super storm,” as it was being called. Taking the advice of officials to evacuate would reduce the risk to first responders. Water-rescue training and associated water-rescue equipment may be needed for many more first responders. Departments that operate in or near flood-prone areas or that experienced unprecedented severe flooding probably need to equip their members with this type of equipment. With global warming and oceans rising, buildings built too close to the flood zones in the past may not be rebuilt or need to be better protected from rising water. The loss of utilities and building services such as heat and hot water also need to be addressed. Emergency generators may become as popular as smartphones if we are going to lose electricity more often. We’ll be providing a lot more information in future issues.


For 30 years, I have traveled to numerous states covering fires and emergencies. It is humbling to see first-hand all the multi-agency coordination and help that is necessary to a region after a storm of this caliber. You go on the road and then go home. You don’t have to live it every day. Thanks to all those who responded, volunteered and helped thousands of others in their time of need.

HARVEY EISNER is editor-in-chief of Firehouse® and a retired assistant chief of the Tenafly, NJ, Fire Department, which he joined in 1975 and served as chief of department for 12 years. He also was a firefighter in the Stillwater, OK, Fire Department for three years while attending Oklahoma State University. Eisner is an honorary assistant chief of the FDNY and program director for the Firehouse Expo, Firehouse World and Firehouse Central conferences. He has covered many major fires and disasters and interviewed numerous fire service leaders for Firehouse®. He edited the book WTC – In Their Own Words, published by Cygnus.