Chief Concerns: It's "All Hands on Deck" When a Disaster Strikes

The semi-regular occurrences of extreme weather have strained municipal resources to nearly a breaking point. No local government service has been burdened greater than the fire service. Not only do fire departments help the citizenry prepare, we maintain...


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Fire inspectors were called in to set up a “call center” in the Fire Marshal’s Office to accept calls from out-of-state dump truck drivers and companies to contract with Baltimore City to remove snow. There were thousands of calls within the 48-hour period. Fire inspectors took the calls, imparted information to the inquiring drivers and collected information from them. The information was used to hire the drivers (mostly from southern states) to travel to Baltimore and dig us out. We were surprised how quickly the calls came in after the call-center number was released to the national media; one must remember that this storm hit at the height of the “great recession” and there were many unemployed dump truck drivers in the South.

Fire inspectors also helped staff the Incident Management Team (IMT) that was set up to manage the incident. The National Incident Management System (NIMS) served the BCFD well in handling the incident and managing resources. Fire inspectors rode along with National Guard troops, who were called into the city with their Hummers and four-wheel-drive trucks, to guide them through the unfamiliar streets of Baltimore transporting doctors and nurses to work and dialysis patients to treatment. Fire inspectors were available for service during the entire event.

 

The “derecho” storm

“Derecho” comes from a Spanish word meaning “direct” or “straight ahead” because that is how the storm system generally travels. Derechos are widespread storms that travel in multiple bands of strong winds over hundreds of miles. Winds from derecho storms can be as strong as 60 mph. In June 2012, a derecho, struck the Mid-Atlantic, downing several hundred trees and power lines and causing almost a million Marylanders to lose power for several days.

During the derecho, fire inspectors responded to several hundred calls about power lines down and flooded basements. Once power lines were down, they maintained a safety zone around the wires until the utility company responded to render them dead. Sometimes, the inspectors were forced to wait up to three hours on scene. In the past, these calls would have monopolized a suppression company’s time, rendering the members unavailable for a serious emergency. It does not take an engine or a truck company staffed with four first responders to stand by maintaining a safety zone until the power company arrives.

In the case of flooded basements, inspectors would respond “non-emergency” to the location, size-up the scene and usually shut down the utilities to render the dwelling safe. Once again, this doesn’t require an engine company. However, if inspectors needed an engine company, they were just a fire communications call away. Inspectors acted as the “eyes and ears” of the fire department to investigate a bevy of calls for service.

Fire inspectors with carbon monoxide (CO) monitors can take calls for possible CO poisoning. Fire Inspectors carry first-aid kits that make them available for medic standbys until advanced life support (ALS) units arrive. The recurring theme in all of their responses is that any call that doesn’t require special equipment and/or four or more personnel can be handled by a fire inspector.

In the wake of the June derecho storm, fire inspectors voiced their need for storm kits. After reaching a consensus on what should be in the storm kit, requisitions went in and kits were assembled. The kits are nothing elaborate – in fact, they are a bit basic: an LED flashlight, a rain poncho, safety flares, a roll of “fire line” plastic tape and a street atlas of Baltimore City.

A derecho with the force of the June 2012 storm occurs once every five to seven years, but storms with half the power of the most recent derecho pass through every summer. Fire departments can no longer operate as if these severe storms are aberrations. Departments must anticipate that one or more extreme weather events a year will hit their jurisdiction and plan accordingly.

 

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy did not affect Baltimore City the way it devastated other areas such as New York and New Jersey, but it did have an impact and fire inspectors were called to help. Baltimore Business Journal reported that Hurricane Sandy left 200,000 households without power in the Greater Baltimore area and more than 200 downed trees in Baltimore City alone; it left two dead and the region’s businesses, city government offices and schools closed.

This time, fire inspectors helped in the preparation for the storm. They helped place reserve apparatus in service and pre-positioned the reserve apparatus throughout the city. The inspectors drove apparatus to fire supply, stocked the apparatus with all of the needed equipment, drove it to pre-assigned destinations and passed on the apparatus to suppression forces.