Lessons Learned: Building Blocks – Not Grinding Stones

Sept. 12, 2005
It has started my friends. Rather than seeking to profit from the mistakes made by our nation's emergency response effort, the Republicans and the Democrats are lining up to take cheap shots at each other. But isn't that what politicians do best. Rather than throw a punch at those who already know that they screwed the pooch, it is my intention to share with you what I believe to be some of the hard lessons learned. These are things which should help you.

It has started my friends. Rather than seeking to profit from the mistakes made by our nation's emergency response effort, the Republicans and the Democrats are lining up to take cheap shots at each other. But isn't that what politicians do best. Rather than throw a punch at those who already know that they screwed the pooch, it is my intention to share with you what I believe to be some of the hard lessons learned. These are things which should help you.

These lessons have been learned at great expense to many of our nation's citizen's. We owe it to those who stand exposed to the next emergency, and the one after that, to lay out a way in which we can build a better emergency response system. We have to stop romancing the butt of every inept politician and sanctimonious soul in the world of politics.

Let me first stress to you that these lessons need to become the building blocks for future success in the area of emergency response. Sadly, many in our nation have chosen to begin using them as grinding stones to wear down the resolve of those of us who put ourselves in harm's way on behalf of our neighbors. Let me offer you an analysis of where I see things at this time.

The lessons all boil down to one basic fact. When things go from good to bad, every one of you will all be on your own for a period of time. This is one little fact that all of those playing the blame game forgot to remember. However, the way it all played out suggests that the period of time that you will be on your own will be much longer than any of us previously thought.

Let me suggest that the days of waiting for the cavalry to come charging over the hill to our rescue are long past. That analogy comes from a generation of dedicated service no longer to be found in many areas of our government. The Red Tape Merchants, rather than the U.S. Cavalry, responded in great abundance.

If the federal government's initial response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster is any indication, the cavalry mounts are in the shop for repairs, and they seem to have a lack of spare saddle blankets, saddles, and horseshoes. There does appear to be one equine by-product which is in great supply, however I shall leave that to your active imagination. As I read the response, the troopers were ready at many locations, but no one had the will or the authority to issue the cavalry movement orders.

Lesson number one is really simple. However, it is not a lesson readily accepted in our modern, every-person-for-themselves society. We each need to take some responsibility for ourselves and our families. The same holds true for our local fire departments. That is lesson number two. We have to create a level of self-sufficiency for our organizations that does not currently exist in many places.

While there are those who do not have the resources to prepare themselves for future emergencies, most of us have the ability to lay in some supplies to prepare ourselves and our families, just in case things start to go bad. Let me present this at a couple of different levels: The family level and the fire department level.

At the family level we first need to create a cache of food and water. While many of you have a deep distain for canned and dried foods, let me suggest that these can be a real blessing in time of trouble. Most of the federal guidelines I have reviewed suggest that we need to have a minimum of three days' worth of goods for ourselves and our families.

How hard is it to keep a supply of bottled water in our homes? My wife always has a couple of cases in the kitchen for our family's regular use. We it on a daily basis and replace it frequently. Why not toss one extra case in the stash. The recommended amount of water per-person and per-day is one gallon, so you may want to set aside some gallon jugs, just in case.

Let me offer a personal dining recommendation. I am the only one in our family who loves Spam. Not the kind you get on your computer, but rather the kind which the Hormel Company has produced for so many decades now. While it is best eaten warm, it is still safe to eat cold, because it comes to us precooked. I could last a long time on Spam.

I know because I used to have my dad send it to me when I was in Vietnam. It beat the living daylights out of C-Rations. The same is true for canned spaghetti and meatballs. The same is also true for baked beans. I think each of us could get by for three days on beans and Spam.

It has been my privilege as member of the military to have eaten government Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE). I think I would take the Spam and beans. Nothing against the MRE, but I know what I like. Like I said earlier, there are also a number of dried foods that have long shelf lives which you should consider adding to your emergency larder.

You should also acquire a battery-powered portable radio, a few flashlights, and a supply of batteries for each. Be sure to check these items on a periodic basis. There is nothing like reaching for a flashlight and finding out that the batteries are dead. I can remember times right here in Adelphia where a battery powered radio was our only link to the outside world.

Only you can decide how much you need for your family. Let me offer a simple fact. More people equate to a need for more things. If you have a smaller abode, there is probably still a place for you to place your stash. Be creative.

The one item that is extremely difficult (and somewhat delicate and embarrassing) for all of us to grasp is the manner in which we must consider those bodily functions that we all know will come calling. These will require a bit more creativity. Where you live will dictate to a large extent how you take care of this.

Let me offer the New Orleans example as one way not to operate. The nearest wall, or a shady, out-of the way place is not the way to do your business. It is my hope that evacuation sites will be set up in a better manner in the future. However I cannot foresee the day when we will issue a federal call for a return to outhouses.

There was a suggestion in the Star Ledger Newspaper of Newark, New Jersey that caught my eye. They suggested the use of large garbage backs with twist ties for your basic human elimination functions. I might add that you will need a certain amount of personal gymnastic skills to use this method. But I will leave that one up to you. Do not forget the appropriate paper products to go with the bags. Also a supply of cleaning wipes would be a good idea too.

Let me offer a different view of this bodily function issue to the political people in the federal government who have consistently placed the fire service on the FEMA back burner, or in the DHS basement. To these people I offer a hat. Hopefully they will know what I mean for them to do.

Let me also suggest that you take this critical infrastructure issue personally to your local government. If you have municipal water and sewer systems, make sure that everything, and I mean everything, in the system has functioning emergency power backup. If they do not have this, scream loud and long. That is how you can play your part in community emergency planning.

Do not take the word of politicians that every thing is OK. You can all see where that got us in this latest disaster. Whenever a politician tells me not to worry I become fearful of their words. That fear leads to worry. That worry should lead to public pressure for better preparedness measures. I live many miles inland from the ocean, but I know that in a bad storm my home will lose power. That is just the way it has been my whole life in New Jersey.

Experience has taught me that it is a good thing to have gas fired appliances. I can recall countless times in my life where my family has lost power. Thanks to our gas stove, we have been able to insure that our Spam and beans were served warm.

A couple of additional suggestion that I abide by are:

  • Never let the gas tank on your motor vehicle go below half. Frankly I gas up at the half way point because the thought of paying for a full tank fill up in my 44-gallon tank Suburban scares the heck out of me.
  • Keep a small supply of folding cash. If you have to hit the road, you may run into the problems they found down in the Gulf Region where the ATM's were out of service thanks to a lack of power.
  • Think about how to get your family to a place of safety. Set up what are called reunion points. This is like a large-scale version of your home evacuation plan where everyone is taught to meet outside near the big elm tree.
  • Have a contact person in another area with whom everyone can check in from time to time.

I read about a neat suggestion offered for pre-planning your use of evacuation routes. Find out what the routes are. Then drive them on nice sunny days to get used to them. Then drive them on a rainy day to see what the difference is. Thanks to the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey for that one.

The same thoughts expressed about hold true for your fire departments. Is your department ready to exist for three days on its in-house resources? Does each station have an emergency generator and a supply of food and water? We have a cache in our station that is capable of supporting a standby crew for a short number of days. The size of your station and the number of members you expect to be on storm duty should govern your in-house cache.

How will your department supply fuel to your apparatus fleet if you use power? Here in Adelphia we have a well-maintained, large size diesel generator that can handle all of our power needs for a number of days. This emergency power capability allows us to maintain heat, light, and electricity for our station. That electrical power also allows us to pump the diesel for the generator.

If your department has to evacuate, where will you go. Most fire people I know like to think that they can ride out anything in their stations. Sadly this type of thinking can get you killed if you are in a storm surge area. Know where you are in relation to the areas that can flood. Also be aware that high winds can happen anywhere. Do you have plans for a relocation site for your fire department?

Please notice that I have not mentioned anything in this commentary about local emergency management resources. I would envision that our community and county emergency management resources would be so strained taking care of those in the community who fail to prepare and provide for themselves that we would not be able to count on them for many of our fire department needs. The same may well hold true for your community.

In my state, the Office of Emergency Management is a function of the State Police. They have rarely displayed a great deal of concern for anything fire service in nature. They have managed to hog the federal money and parcel it out most parsimoniously to anyone without a gun, badge, and handcuffs. Only on rare occasions has any sort of money escaped the state police snare.

Why, might you ask, am I saying negative things about my state's Office of Emergency Management? The answer is really quite simple. When I speak or write about the twin concepts of coordination and cooperation, I am speaking of a two-way exchange of ideas and support. Let me just suggest that in far too many cases, you could name streets after the type of support that comes from the folks in my state capitol. The streets signs would all have arrows that say One Way.

Any great stride in local emergency planning and preparation which we will see in our lifetimes will come from our own efforts. After all, that is the thrust of this commentary. Do what you can to protect yourself, your family and your fire department.

Let me close with one final example of the consummate brilliance with which our federal government is running the Katrina disaster. According to the Star Ledger Wire Service, "a German military plane carrying 15 tons of military rations for survivors of Hurricane Katrina was sent back by U.S. Authorities, official said yesterday. The plane was turned away because it did not have the required authorization." Give me a break.

God help us and protect us from the people in Washington trying to protect us.

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