Self-Discipline and Disaster Response


?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)?.

I wrote an article in not long after this e-mail was released in 2002, in regard to the anticipated ?un-invited? responses to Hurricane Lili; it seems the lessons learned from self-deployment in 2001 to the World Trade Center and other tragic incidents still haven?t been learned. Or is it that we don?t care to hear the message? Or is the system of getting the correct resources to the right places not working?

As I mentioned before, I have been on both ends of the disaster situation, both as a ?lawfully? deployed resource and as an incident commander. Similarities can be drawn between the incident commander of a large fire and one of a major multi-jurisdictional disaster; information is coming in at a high rate of speed and you have to process it, sometimes faster than you?d wish, and make decisions that sometimes are questionable but better than no decision. In the old days, the incident commander at the fire could sometimes count on departments showing up without having been called. Where did they come from? What are their qualifications? What can they do? What do they need to do their job? What am I going to do with them when they need to be rested, fed, and sheltered? How would you feel in this situation? Most departments around the country have been pretty quick to shut down the ?squirrels? that showed up without being dispatched.

One of the hardest things we have to do as emergency responders is to say to ourselves, ?what can I do to keep the incident from getting worse?? Sometimes the best things we can do to keep from complicating the incident is to maintain our discipline while disaster is happening all around us and to remain committed to the plan despite the shouts of the less-informed around us. When is the last time you were at a fire and the bystanders are shouting at you to do one thing when you knew as an experienced responder there was a task more necessary. It?s just like the oft-repeated scenario where a ?doctor? is on scene (who later turns out to be a podiatrist) telling your medics to ?start an IV!!!? when the airway hasn?t even been controlled first.

Not only can rushing in without being called lend to confusion and disorganization, it can create an unsafe condition to the point of responders being injured or killed. Imagine the situation becoming much worse as you have to focus your efforts on saving your own. Does anyone imagine for a second that this has helped the situation any? Throughout the past days of Hurricane Katrina, I have had to field many phone calls from well-intentioned emergency personnel who felt that ?anything is better than nothing?. My statement to them is that they should think about what impact they might have on the locals if they show up and draw from the already scarce resources. This all, however, is no comfort to the responders who are sitting at home waiting for the call while others around them rush to action.

However, I?m not for a second suggesting that I am happy with the current situation; our urban search and rescue task force spent most of the past four days gearing up for reports from affected jurisdictions begging for help, only to be told later in the evening that there was ?plenty of help, maybe we?ll call you later?. Again, had we gone off without a tasking order, we might very well be showing up in downtown Bay St. Louis with nothing to do, again making the entire situation worse.

Furthermore, I am not convinced that the current method of deploying assets to disasters seems to be working, with the continued reliance on the same teams over and over despite appropriate resources being closer in many cases and equally equipped and trained. I don?t think for a minute that other State teams in the same situation as ours out there are patiently awaiting the call and having complete understanding from their communities. And yet our authorities continue to permit un-requested responders to operate when they arrive on the scene and don?t turn them around and send them home.

The discipline of staying home is not easy at all. Our task force waits for their lawful deployment order despite being chastised by citizens for ?Why aren?t you going in to help? and, ?Why are you all still here?? ?What are my tax dollars paying for anyway?? Despite having the necessary boats, underwater search robotics from the Savannah River National Laboratory, and highly-trained, highly-motivated team members of whom I am very proud for their continued discipline and professionalism, we continue to wait for the call, and every one of you knows how hard that is. But as I tell each of my members it is the right thing to do, sometimes in your gut you are asking if you believe it to be true.

The situation is very dire in the Deep South. Our brother and sister emergency responders are doing all they can do to manage things. The horror in the faces of each victim has affected me to the point where I have to turn off the television because I have to steel myself to do the right thing and await my lawful orders.

But when someone deploys without having been lawfully requested, they not only affect the emergency at hand, but also the units who are doing the right thing by waiting for the call. Then to make it worse, the ones who respond outside of the plan get hailed by the local media as heroes when what they are is a bunch of cowboys going off half-cocked and without a plan or a place to report to. They make the rest of us look bad, and they make the fire service look like a bunch of disorganized incompetents. Each of you reading this bemoans the situation of the fire service each year and we can all agree that many times, our professionalism is what sparks the question. Is jumping in a truck with three buddies, no food, no shelter, and no gasoline and heading into the heart of the disaster good for the people you think you are going to serve, or have you just made it worse?

The right thing to do is what you would want done if the disaster was in your own jurisdiction; organized response to your disaster with the right resources and with a positive impact on the scene, not a negative one. The right thing to do is to be cool-headed and professional and to work within the system to fix it, not to subvert it and do an end-run on it. We thought we fixed this before; let?s take the opportunity this time in earnest to look hard at our plans on the local, state and national levels and do what?s best for the communities we serve. Stay home unless you are called.