Lessons Learned and Reinforced

Photo by Bill Hopson.
Photo by Bill Hopson.

Participants in this report share their “top three” lessons learned and reinforced from Hurricane Sandy.

RONALD SPADAFORA, assistant chief and chief of logistics, Bureau of Operations, Fire Department of New York (FDNY)

1 Hurricane contingency plans are based on Evacuation Zones, which relate to the varying threat levels of coastal flooding resulting from storm surge. Ensure that these plans are accessible to all first responders in your agency, and include them in your Incident Action Plan.

2 Preplan for hurricane and severe storm emergencies continuously throughout the year, and involve all levels of command. Maintain a continual liaison with other city, state, federal, and nongovernmental agencies when developing preplanning operations.

3 Company commanders must determine if their firehouses will flood under storm conditions or if their facilities can be used to host relocated companies. They must also evaluate the condition and operational status of emergency generators and hookup connections. Units must survey institutional occupancies (hospitals, nursing homes, and correctional facilities) and keep pertinent information current. Departments must note which fire hydrants in their administrative districts are likely to be submerged during a storm. Units should ensure that an updated set of storm maps is prominently displayed inside quarters. They must check the operational status of generators; dewatering pumps; and the inventory of tools, supplies, and equipment.

ROBERT MAYNES, deputy assistant chief, Queens borough commander, and Incident Management Team (IMT) incident commander, FDNY

1 Sandy resulted in extensive damage to the infrastructure of the Rockaway Peninsula. One significant challenge was communications, as Internet, phones, and cell phones provided minimal connectivity. The majority of the west end was limited to intermittent cell phone service. I was previously issued one of four IMT satellite phones. The phone was invaluable following Sandy for communicating critical needs. Satellite phones are expensive and include monthly charges. Based on experiences from Katrina, the IMT incurred this cost for emergency communications. Agencies that strive to attain preparedness need to purchase the appropriate number of satellite phones. The phones need to be included in drills, and users need to be familiar with them prior to a catastrophic incident.

2 Members were unable to fuel personal work vehicles because of a gasoline shortage. Following Sandy, both apparatus and first responders were significantly impacted by fuel shortages. Agencies need to identify a process to fuel apparatus and personal vehicles during and following a catastrophic incident. Members were assigned to additional tours that required numerous trips from home to the work location. The lack of fuel for personal vehicles created a stressful and unsafe condition. Exhausted members waiting on lines for hours at filling stations increased stress and fatigue. After fighting numerous fires, units were forced to relocate from the impacted area to fuel apparatus. Storage tanks at impacted firehouses were damaged by the storm, limiting the ability to store fuel.

It is recommended that first response agencies acquire a gasoline and diesel tanker for use during an emergency that impacts the local fuel supply. Additionally, it is recommended that the first response agencies establish a procedure to permit the filling of a member’s personal “work” vehicle, including a process to invoice the member for reimbursement.

3 Since Hurricane Katrina, nationally numerous IMTs have been created, and national capacity continues to increase. Impacted areas did not order IMTs in a timely manner. Agencies with potential for serious storm impact should consider ordering appropriate teams prior to storm impact. Establishing an incident command post and base safe from the incident is mandatory, as the rescuers cannot become part of the problem. Agency administrators need to continuously update situation awareness. This challenge is best accomplished by communicating with the responders actually on the ground performing operations. Leaders must accurately determine need by addressing a complexity analysis. Do not bring a pen knife to a gunfight. Order the appropriate team to match the complexity. Following Hurricane Katrina, there have been numerous incidents nationally at which the FDNY IMT would have been invaluable to the impacted responders. All attempts for assignment were unsuccessful, often for unacceptable reasons.

JOSEPH W. PFEIFER, assistant chief/chief of counterterrorism and emergency preparedness, FDNY

1 When leading at large-scale disasters, incident commanders must not only give verbal commands but must also create a deliberate calm to visualize the fireground. Strategic opportunities are generated by anticipating the fire’s movement and tactically positioning units for the dynamic changes in fire behavior.

2 Community resilience is more quickly achieved by using first responders’ forces for short-term recovery task forces-e.g., dewatering operations.

3 Adapting to the novelty of major disasters necessitates that firefighters customize standard operating procedures and create new ways of doing things. Improvisational drafting from flood waters surrounding fire trucks became the most reliable source of water for fighting fires during this storm.

JOSEPH R. DOWNEY, battalion chief, Rescue Battalion; Special Operations Command (SOC) Task Force (TF) leader, FDNY

1 Having members in the impact area before Sandy arrived made a tremendous difference between rescuing trapped residents and recovering them in the following days. Members from the Rescue Operations Command were pre-positioned in the communities believed to be most prone to tidal surges and flooding. The SOC-TF’s eight swift water teams, for the most part, were imbedded in firehouses where the most damage occurred. They were involved with approximately 500 rescues the night of the storm. If these swift water teams had not been placed in these areas in advance, they would have run into the same problems as other units that could not gain access because of high water levels.

2 Training members in swift water operations and providing them with proper personal protective equipment was crucial to the rescue of hundreds of civilians, without incurring any major injuries. Swift water and boat operator training have become core disciplines for rescue operations training. Over the past two decades, it has become obvious that our rescuers need to be prepared for hurricanes and water-borne events.

3 High winds and tidal flooding affect large areas, which often encompass many communities. Reconnaissance and wide-area searching are extremely important because time is of the essence when people are trapped. Rescuers on the national and local levels need to be familiar with and use the same systems for marking and accounting for searches. Performing recon and making wide-area searches should be part of every agency’s training.

JOHN SUDNIK, assistant chief/Manhattan borough commander, FDNY

1 The incident commander (IC) must ensure that the collapse danger zone is strictly enforced for both fire department and civilian personnel. No one should be allowed to enter the restricted area without approval from the IC. This message should be reinforced during the safety briefing held at every interagency meeting.

2 Representatives from utility companies are a tremendous resource for the IC at major fires and emergencies. Fire department chief officers should build working relationships with utility emergency crews before the incident. Site-familiarization, tabletop, and large-scale exercises offer opportunities for making these connections.

3 Identify sectors and groups early according to Incident Command System guidelines to ensure a manageable span of control and a more efficient use of resources. Also, establish a command channel frequency, which will give the IC greater control of incident communications and an increase in situational awareness.


1 Our tools worked nonstop for days. Having additional supplies such as bar oil, fuel mix, and spare chains for the chain saw at the division’s tool depot assisted operations. We also learned that additional tools not carried on the apparatus were needed when we were faced with the adverse conditions of this storm. Our department will issue to our unit newer come-alongs shortly, and we may add additional saws and equipment in the aftermath of Sandy, including requisitioning additional glow sticks for increased lighting capabilities. A review of our daily operations revealed the need for daily maintenance of dewatering pumps, which operated for hours and hours in this response. A skilled technician should go over the equipment at the end of each day to prolong its use and life and to ensure that it is in proper working condition for its next use.

2 Use proper safety equipment and procedures to keep operations safe at all times. The chaps members wore during tree-cutting operations prevented cuts and kickback injuries from saws. Safety goggles prevented saw dust or chips from entering members’ eyes. We sized up trees to make sure no power lines were entangled within them before we attempted cutting operations to remove them. Trees with power lines were left for the power companies unless the power company was present and assured us that the lines were dead. We did not have the capability to cut large trees that had fallen on dwellings, but we cut branches that blocked access to the dwelling or made it impossible to use the sidewalk.

3 Often after operating in areas that were contaminated, it was difficult to find clean water to which we could add bleach to decontaminate our personal protective equipment. Using the hazardous materials suits for decontamination allowed us to enter areas and operate without having to worry about deconning the suits. We just threw them in a hazardous waste bag after the day’s work. Also, while operating in these areas in the days and weeks following the storm, we would be cautious about purchasing food, bottled water, and sports drinks to rehydrate/recuperate. We brought these items in areas that did not experience extensive damage, but we often ran out. It was also difficult to locate bathroom facilities for members. Firehouses in certain areas were still without power and water, and portable toilets hadn’t arrived yet. Mini-camps or outposts may have to be created so responders can report in and satisfy these needs.

Larry Collins, battalion chief, Los Angeles (CA) County Fire Department; task force leader, Los Angeles County Fire Department Urban Search and Rescue Team

1 Some of the complicating factors encountered in the Sandy response fall into the category known as “Black Swan” events-events so rare that most people consider them highly improbable or not possible at all (economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb). Yet, it seems that they are exactly the kind of events to which fire departments (and FEMA US&R TFs) are often dispatched. The adverse effects of Sandy are consistent with a Black Swan event-extensive damages and costs, loss of life, and destruction of towns and districts, for example. Taleb’s advice is, “Continue preparing for Black Swans and other unusual disasters whose effects might otherwise come as a surprise and for which there might otherwise be no standardized contingencies.”

He cautions: “Our tools for forecasting and risk measurement cannot begin to capture Black Swans.” The answer is “to try to create institutions that won’t fall apart when we (inevitably) encounter Black Swans (anti-fragility),” which will enable private and public sectors “to thrive and improve in the face of disorder” and “make better decisions without the illusion of being able to predict the next big thing.” (“Learning to Love Volatility,” Wall Street Journal, November 17-18, 2012.)

Taleb seems to be speaking directly to all firefighters, rescuers, and other emergency responders.

2 The lessons from Hurricane Sandy did not occur in a vacuum. Its main lessons will be stacked on the countless lessons from many other disasters. In the coming years, many more lessons from future disasters will be stacked on the lessons from Sandy. It’s almost like the layering of sediment that can be read as a history. Some lessons from Sandy may be translated into new approaches quickly; others will take longer to digest and be translated into new “best practices.”

3 With every disaster or catastrophe, it’s important to make certain there will be short-term improvements and changes, but it’s also critical to take a long view and put the lessons and experiences in context. Metaphorically speaking, when it comes to disaster response, the fire and rescue services have collectively built a road into an untrodden wilderness.

BRETT MARTINEZ, fire marshal, Suffolk County (NY) Fire Rescue and Emergency Services

1 Leaders were willing to allow the proper personnel and resources to be assembled from within their own jurisdiction early enough before the onset of the storm. These assets and the assistance from outside resources before the onset of the storm made it possible to begin the planning and staging priorities before the event materialized.

2 The TF missions (search and rescue and recon) were achieved, but the methods varied with the current conditions. Traditional methods of using small boats to effect rescues had to be modified, for example. Instead, high water rescue vehicles, aircraft (specifically helicopters), and larger water craft had to be used. Logistics must take into account additional equipment that might be needed for these missions and ways to transport it.

3 Accurate intelligence helps to ensure that the assets best suited for the specific goals and objectives will be deployed and reduces the need to countermand mission objectives. The best and most advanced communications technology will not solve poorly crafted or misunderstood information. Reports of people trapped on the barrier beach communities were received. Detailed plans were developed to deploy boat squads to effect search and rescue objectives, but when we arrived at the Area Command center, village and local government officials reported that all residents were accounted for and did not wish to evacuate. This changed the goals and objectives from a primary search and rescue mission to a secondary search with a special order to identify residents of each community who wished to stay on the barrier beach. Our boat squads were capable of performing the first part of the search but were not prepared to capture release forms (names, addresses, and other pertinent information) for victims who were not residents but visitors on vacation who wished to remain on the beach.

This mission was further complicated by the fact that deployed boat squads found a little over a dozen victims who wanted to be evacuated. These evacuations raised questions about the intelligence provided by village and local government officials and necessitated that the TF revert to the primary search and rescue objectives, reversing the original orders communicated to the boat squads. Having US&R personnel instead of individuals specially trained to obtain information from the public and to handle residents whose emotions were clouding their need to move toward safer ground slowed the operations dramatically.

RAY McCORMACK, lieutenant, FDNY

1 Local assistance is key! Organizational leadership is often hit or miss at the down-and-dirty level of recovery. Many speeches are made praising the work of organizational leaders when, in reality, grass roots pop-up leadership is getting things done while the larger, slower-moving recovery effort limps forward. Although massive aid is required, the smaller hands of instant assistance bring early stability and calm.

2 People need to step up! The people who organized work parties for those needing a hand or feeding the hungry need to spring up after a disaster. These neighbors who suffered also had the drive to organize and support the stabilization of their neighborhoods by being the contact between a call for help and directing the assistance to where it was needed and the food to those who were hungry. All was done without fanfare or compensation.

3 The fire service needs to examine how it fits into a long-range recovery effort! We are there during the disaster, and we now know what people need from a talented workforce that not only protects them but also helps them recover. The fire department has the opportunity to shine as no other organization poststorm, making sure there are long-term plans for community recovery aided by firefighters.

BILL HOPSON, deputy fire marshal, Ocean County (NJ) Office of the Fire Marshal

1 An incident such as this takes more out of you emotionally than you would believe. To witness so many people hurting and to still see the devastation several months later takes a toll on you. The ability to rehabilitate emotionally is tougher than you would imagine. The storm taught us that many of our initial first responders now know their physical and emotional limits. For so many, this storm has changed their thinking. It will stay with this generation of firefighters forever. We also learned that so many of our firefighters, police, and EMS personnel gave all they could-and then some.

2 When you are a small-size local fire department, you never visualize multiple pieces of your apparatus being disabled all at the same time, which significantly reduces your department’s ability to answer requests for help. Having a plan in place to address how a department can overcome this is now a priority. Prior to this storm, so few fire departments knew there were so many who were willing to help. Today, several months later, fire departments are thinking about not being as aggressive in committing apparatus in severe weather to better preserve resources for the long term. The storm taught us that we can realize what we collectively have for resources and that we can better share those resources for the overall, greater good.

3 “Home Rule” only applies so far. Perhaps the toughest lesson learned throughout the few weeks of the storm was accepting the realization that each discipline (fire, police, emergency management, and EMS) was steered into doing its own thing because a unified command was not established and implemented. With each municipality and each authority having jurisdiction setting its own terms and conditions, the levels of resource sharing and prioritizing became very, very difficult. In some instances, municipalities had no choice other than to plead for help from anyone who could help. In some instances, municipalities and authorities having jurisdiction constructed administrative and physical barriers that were difficult to get past. We learned we still have a lot of work to do, collectively, before the next storm hits so that one agency or one discipline isn’t so dominant over all others.

ALFRED GERBER III, safety and training officer, Little Ferry (NJ) Hook and Ladder #1

1 The community found itself in a situation as never before. With all the scrambling to be prepared for a major storm that was predicted to flood the streets and some basements, we seemed to forget about the worst-case scenario. We had the personnel, we had the boats, we relocated, and we knew we would need to reach out for our resources for more of what we already had in place, but we forgot to consider that no matter what the National Weather Service tells us is coming, you’re not sure until it gets there. By 10 p.m., Main Street became a tributary of the Hackensack River as it flowed through the streets into backyards and basements.

2 With this storm behind us, we will be preplanning the proper notifications to the residents who live in the previously affected areas so they may make the appropriate relocation arrangements to a safe haven prior to the water’s rising and flooding their homes. We are not going to stop the water from coming, but we can help get everyone out of its way. This time, thousands of people had to be relocated, and more than half of the emergency responders were in devastating situations with their own homes.

3 Just because we train to prepare ourselves to help our community when the need arises does not mean that we are immune to the power of Mother Nature’s wrath. In just 20 minutes, the fire department lost more than 20 responders who were forced to return to their own homes and were not able to return to their duties for days, some for weeks. With this in mind, we have finally realized that our number one priority is our own families, and many firefighters have explained to their loved ones that they must be prepared for next time-and accept the fact that there will be a next time.

Our two boats were not going to get the job done. The towns that usually respond to Little Ferry for a water emergency will most likely not be able to respond if we are faced with another storm matching or surpassing the magnitude of Sandy. Their towns may likely be underwater also. We are preparing to have more boats on hand so that we will be better equipped if another storm occurs, and we are making arrangements for additional water rescue training.

CHRISTOPHER NIEBLING, deputy, Mantoloking (NJ) Office of Emergency Management

1 Run the incident. Don’t let the incident run you. Early on into the storm, everyone who is involved within the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) as well as emergency workers wanted to help, give input, and stabilize the situation. Information, opinions, and suggestions come at you from all directions; the OEM can become chaotic and disorganized. Identify and enforce from the beginning the delineation of rank structure within the OEM and roles and responsibilities. This is the only way you can plan and organize strategies and have command and control.

2 Well before the storm, familiarize your government officials of the policies, procedures, and laws within your state when under a state of emergency. By doing this, you will have a much better relationship within the OEM, and everyone will work in concert with each other instead of being polarized by potential individual agendas.

3 In the early days after a storm, everyone is assessing, evaluating, and initiating operations, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Do not expect that FEMA will be hitting the ground with all the answers and resources you will need right away. You will meet multiple individuals and groups, and those answers and resources will come in time. Be prepared to handle and coordinate on your own all resources you may need early in the incident. Keep communications open with all state and federal agencies; do not hesitate to continue your requests for needed resources.

ART BLOOMER, firefighter, Kearny (NJ) Fire Department; rescue specialist, NJ-TF1

1 We need to develop and train on new procedures and techniques for dealing with tidal flood waters after the ocean breaches the barrier islands and meets the bay. Never ever underestimate Mother Nature. We all knew that we were going to experience weather conditions we had never seen before, but most of us had no idea of what we were going to face. We were trained in swift water rescue, but that was in water that went in only one direction. As we dealt with rescues in what amounted to being in the surf, we had to learn how to work in water that first went left and then right and then left again-then, it swirled all around us. We have to develop new techniques right on the spot.

2 We need to develop policies and procedures for setting up realistic operational periods and adjusting rest and rehab procedures for long-duration incidents. Personnel are precious. Most of the fire departments along the Jersey Shore are volunteer organizations. They were already facing decreased membership prior to the storm. In addition, some members had to fight to save their own residences from the storm damage that night. Also, volunteers are not used to working such long hours. The duration of the hurricane and its immediate aftermath taxed the members to the breaking point. Many were working 24 to 36 hours straight without adequate rest and rehab. Add to this the winter storm that followed the week after the hurricane; many members put in a tremendous number of hours.

At times, there were not enough units during the initial onslaught of the storm to handle all of the incidents. Demand outweighed supply. In the days that followed, many departments that were not devastated by the storm arrived in the affected areas to take the burden off the overtaxed departments.

3 We need to think ahead, long before the need arises, to stage in advance mutual aid from areas not expected to be affected by the anticipated event. Because Mother Nature will not always act according to what we expect, we must build fluidity into our disaster plans.

JACK MURPHY, fire marshal (ret.)/ former deputy chief, Leonia (NJ) Fire Department

1 The various radio frequencies from nine county mutual-aid groups should have a countywide frequency readily available, especially for task force/strike team responses. A mobile field communications unit with the capability to patch in frequencies along with multitrickle charge portable radios proved to be an invaluable resource not only for the TF response district but also for connecting two Bergen County fire companies that did not have a countywide frequency in their apparatus.

2 Have readily available for deployment a county rehab unit equipped with weather gear, meals ready to eat (MREs), water, sports drinks, blankets and cots, toiletries, and so on to accommodate long-distance statewide TF or strike team deployments.

3 Having an EMS unit dedicated to the TF was especially appreciated when the group was assigned to do forcible entry into structures for search and to isolate the building utilities. The EMS unit proved to be of value, especially for firefighters.

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