How useful is your community’s emergency response plan?

A never-ending discussion of the low likelihood of an event happening doesn't make you safer

TORONTO, ON, Jul 2, 2014/ Troy Media/ – A friend of mine, the late Charles Gaines was second to arrive at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Charles was the Deputy Fire Chief responding to a call. When he took a look at the building, he thought it was a false alarm – everything looked just fine. But when he walked around to the other side, he saw a huge swath cut out of the structure – exposing open floors of office space to the elements.

Charles’ first thought was that a plane had crashed into the building – it would have had the same effect. Not having a response plan for a plane crashing into a building, the fire department invoked its tornado plan. The point being that an explosion, tornado or plane, might cause very similar damage. An explosion could be accidental or purposeful. The explosive could be in a gas main, suit case, rental truck and could be farmers’ dynamite or nitroglycerin.

The rubble is not conscious of how it went from being a building to rubble. The injured don’t care what caused the brick to fall on their heads.

Response is much the same, regardless of cause. Responders need food, the injured need medical attention and rubble needs to be searched. In the case of vandalism or terrorism, bad people have to be caught.

Once it was determined that a bomb had caused the damage in Oklahoma City, response remained the same. The only wrinkle to terrorism is the potential for a planned second explosion designed to kill and injure responders and evacuees. This didn’t happen in Oklahoma City. What did change response was finding that the FBI had stored a number of weapons, including explosives, in the Federal Building. When fire-fighters discovered this, they ran out until it was safe to continue the response.

What’s this got to do with you, in your city? Lots.

There’s a new term in crisis response and planning. It’s called the “all hazards plan.” In fact, this approach is so well thought of that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the U.S. requires local jurisdictions “to adopt an all natural hazards mitigation plan to be eligible for disaster-related grants.” That’s a quote from the introduction to Baltimore’s plan.

Being able to respond to many hazards with common responses is a good idea. The Baltimore plan speaks of Emergency Support Functions (ESFs). Each one is a “set of services that is likely to be required during a wide range of incidents.” This makes sense. We have a water supply to douse flames, regardless of how the fire started. We evacuate or quarantine because of disease, terrorism, weather or war.

Oddly though, in Baltimore’s “all hazards plan” they also evaluate “the frequency and magnitude of different hazards.” In fact, in the portions I’ve read, there’s far more about potential hazards than actual response techniques. The plan also quotes FEMA as requiring “a comprehensive range of mitigation actions for each hazard identified.” This appears to be the opposite of the ESF strategy.

The plan writers of Baltimore have actually gone to some trouble to list and quantify hazards, many of which don’t actually exist. For example, they considered “avalanche” as a hazard. But a “Lack of mountainous terrain makes hazard improbable.” Indeed. The same is true of “Volcano.” Plan writers conducted an interview with Geological Survey officials and determined that “hazard does not significantly affect Baltimore.” This may be a result of no volcanic mountains being present – but I’m just guessing.

You’ll know around your home and with family members if you’re making yourself more secure or wasting time. Locks, bolts, food supplies, plans with neighbours, first aid kits and so on make you more secure. A never-ending discussion of the low likelihood of an event happening or an inventory of what could go wrong, doesn’t make you safer.

It’s worth downloading your city’s plan to see how much useful information is in it versus contradictory and bureaucratic prose.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our times on five continents for 25 years. He loves cities and his latest book will be titled Safe Cities.

Read more Allan Bonner

Follow Allan via RSS

Purchase this PREMIUM content.
Unlimited Access
member? Have an account with us? Login to open in Word.
Pay as you go member? Prices start at $14. Login or register

Troy Media Marketplace © 2014 – All Rights Reserved

You must be logged in to post a comment Login