Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Technical Rescue

After the Storm: Firefighter Awareness and Extreme Weather Events

By Paul Henderson

On days where the weather forecasters are telling people to stay indoors, first responders are faced with an extremely busy day at work. People who become victims rely on first responders to come to the aid when extreme weather events strike. Weather events that impact us as first responders may be tornadoes, thunderstorms, flooding, hurricanes and tropical storms, earthquakes, and winter storms. Even if responders are not directly affected by the weather event, the aftermath can present numerous dangers.

Dangers Presented

The first things that may come to mind when someone brings up extreme weather events are tornadoes. It is drilled in our mind, in everything from movies to the weather man breaking in right at the good part of television show to issue a tornado warning. We are surrounded with indications of the danger of tornadoes, and we all have witnessed–whether firsthand or via television or the Internet–the destruction they cause, further reinforcing awareness about their hazards.

One type of weather element that can sometimes get overlooked is the thunderstorm. The ravages wrought by larger events like tornadoes results in thunderstorms getting somehow labeled as a “simpler” weather event, but thunderstorms are anything but simple. These storms can bring strong winds, torrential downpours, and lightning.

Flooding can present a host of dangers such as drowning and building evacuations, even in shallower water that may seem less dangerous than deep water.

Hurricanes and tropical storms may be overlooked by people that do not live on the coast, but even hundreds of miles inland these storms can present problems. Although the brunt of the storm is an extreme for those on the coast, the storm usually travels many miles inland, causing flooding and other dangers we’ve already discussed.

One natural event that is not common to my department is an earthquake. The dangers that are associated with these range from personal harm to fire to structural instability and collapse.

The winter can bring storms that are just as dangerous as any tornado. Freezing temperatures and the possibility of hypothermia complicate response by firefighters and other responders.

All of these weather events create immediate danger while the event is happening, but there are still many dangers that remain after the storm or event has transpired.

Dangers After the Event

First responders must remember that the predominant dangers we will face will take place after the storm. Life safety should always take top priority in any task that we do. During the storm, take shelter and protect yourself so that you can aid others when it is safe for you to exit. While everyone else sees the storm pass, seemingly taking the danger with it, remember that it is just the beginning for first responders. Now the time has come for us to explore into the aftermath and provide assistance to the best of our ability. At this time, responders will face complications, turmoil, extreme situations, and numerous dangers that we have to think ahead about to prevent injury and further damage.

Structural Stability

Structural stability has to be a top concern. Whether you’re working in the aftermath of a tornado, winter storm, earthquake, or even a thunderstorm, the structural stability of affected buildings may be compromised, increasing danger to crews who must conduct searches and rescues and other functions. From top to bottom, every person on the scene has to maintain safety. Take extra care and pay attention to whether the storm has dismembered support beams, pushed trees onto a structure, created holes in walls or other structural members, or, in the case of winter storms, deposited a load of snow on the roof which can raise the possibility of collapse.

After the Storm: Firefighter Awareness and Extreme Weather Events

After the Storm: Firefighter Awareness and Extreme Weather Events

(1-2) Images of storm-damage situations that may create dangers for responders.

Personal Safety

If you allow yourself to get hurt, you become a hindrance and cannot help the victims you were trying to save. Sometimes, simple things  can become a danger: for example, people operating a generator in a basement can lead to carbon monoxide buildup, and if you are responding to an emergency at such a property, you may not notice this odorless, tasteless, and colorless killer. Consider the debris that is often scattered all over the place when a tornado strikes, such as boards filled with nails; this and other rubble creates trip hazards on streets that crews may have to navigate by walking.

You may also face extreme electrical hazards. Structures that have been destroyed and severely damaged, with power sources left exposed and downed power lines that may be live and blocking access to structures.

This confluence of events creates a complex working environment for responders. We have to be smart and responsible about the situation we are placed in, so as to do the most good in the safest possible manner.

Paul HendersonPaul Henderson is a captain with the Center Point (AL) Fire District. He has been with the department for 15 years, and has been in the fire service for 20 years.