Disaster Response: Commanding the Storm: Lessons Learned From Oklahoma Tornados - Part 2

One of the first priorities every fire officer learns in Incident Command System (ICS) training is to maintain the safety and security of your personnel. One element that led to an increase in the complexity of this disaster was the fact that the storm...


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One of the first priorities every fire officer learns in Incident Command System (ICS) training is to maintain the safety and security of your personnel. One element that led to an increase in the complexity of this disaster was the fact that the storm developed from a small cloud to a major tornado very quickly.

 

 

 

 

Even with the rapidly developing system, the National Weather Service was still able to issue a tornado warning 16 minutes before the tornado hit the outer edges of the metropolitan area.

Oklahoma has a very high-tech system of weather forecasting and storm chasing where reporters can give minute-by-minute and block-by-block coverage of the path of a tornado. When this happens, officials have a good idea of where the storm is going to hit. Unfortunately, the Moore tornado’s rapid buildup and erratic behavior gave little opportunity to pinpoint its exact path. By the time the tornado reached the western edges of Oklahoma City and Moore, it was apparent that its track would take it directly through downtown Moore and eventually to the main police and fire stations. There was little more responders could do except survive by any means possible.

In this particular incident, Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird made the decision to abandon the fire station in the direct path of the tornado to an area about three miles south of town. Bird was quoted, “If we were going to lose the city’s new $8 million fire station, there was no need to lose the $2 million worth of equipment as well.” The decision to evacuate the personnel and equipment was made as early as possible and proved correct. By comparison, response agencies elsewhere in the state that chose to “ride out” a similar-size storm returned to their stations to find both the equipment and the facility damaged beyond the ability to function, leaving potentially lifesaving responses out of the question for the immediate area.

It is important to note that evacuating emergency personnel ahead of a large storm would not be the correct decision in every case. It is likely that in the event of an F4 or F5 tornado, most of the civilian population would be evacuating at the same time, so emergency personnel and apparatus could be easily trapped by traffic in the full path of the storm. Even if the exact track of the tornado is known, the associated hail, flash flooding and high winds in the area of a tornado often are enough to damage equipment beyond its ability to respond. If any evacuation is ordered, it should be done as early as possible (preferably an hour or more before the storm) and only for the most deadly situation to avoid exposing personnel and equipment to extremely dangerous forces.

 

Establishing a strong

“unified command”

As evacuated response units from Moore returned to the city, they quickly came face to face with total destruction. Thousands of splintered boards were sticking in the ground, as if someone had systematically driven them into the ground at exactly the same angle.

Dozens of people were helping their neighbors crawl out of numerous piles of debris. Hundreds of crumpled vehicles were heaped in a pile like someone had swept them into a corner. Injured civilians were wandering aimlessly through neighborhoods. Splintered utility poles were tangled in nests of live wires that littered every major intersection. Large sections of residential and commercial buildings were scattered across streets and highways, blocking traffic in every direction. Residential lots, with no visible evidence left of address, were found with driveways leading into indiscernible piles of rubble or empty slabs. Several homes burned freely in an area where no apparatus could gain access. Any one of these individual emergencies would normally require at least a single alarm by itself, but in this case, the full extent of the emergency was just beginning to unfold.

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