Katrina-a hurricane encompassing 93,000 square miles of destruction, displacing 770,000 people, claiming 1,300 lives, and resulting in roughly 2,000 people still being unaccounted for-is now the definition of the worst natural disaster in American history. The numbers are staggering. The Red Cross provided financial aid to more than 1.2 million families. More than one million people evacuated. The United States Coast Guard was credited with performing more than 33,000 rescues. All 28 Urban Search and Rescue teams were mobilized, several repeatedly. Firefighters and water rescue teams mobilized through Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) agreements. Officers from the Environmental Protection Agency, Army, Navy, and Marine assets and every type of resources all converged as soon as they could, many before it was considered safe to do so.

The response was vilified by many as incompetent and a failure and by others as courageous and resourceful. The magnitude of Katrina alone cannot allow us to excuse some of the shortcomings exposed-poorly trained political appointees with dynamic and critical responsibilities and failure to react to and prepare for the very circumstances identified by a careful and highly public national exercise called Hurricane Pam. The extent of dysfunction within federally controlled organizations, functions, and assets that did not know how to work together was baffling. These issues are, frankly, inexcusable. The communications failures in the technological sense-downed towers and obliterated machines-are understandable. Having persons of responsibility not understand the very system they mandated through legislation be standardized is completely reprehensible.

The action in the field-the decisions made by everyday citizens, US&R task force members, doctors, firefighters, and paramedics-will forever change how we prepare for and respond to natural disasters in the future. The customer service teams became forward scouting patrols, feeding commanders with reports of citizens and issues that required their immediate attention. The innovation of the water rescue teams was notable, as they made themselves available and worked with everyone as the consummate professionals they are. We are the most fortunate of nations, as we possess the optimism of the adventurers who continue to this day to be drawn to our shores. This optimism allows us to recognize our shortcomings and turn them around. Americans do not repeat mistakes; we learn from them and grow stronger.

The lessons learned by responders from every aspect of emergency services are many. The aftermath of Katrina is as far-reaching and as complicated as the storm itself. The fallout and changes in political and organizational terms as they relate to the fire service continue. The organizational leadership of those agencies held accountable for responding has been and will continue to be investigated and reviewed.

The size, scope, and complexity of Katrina revealed shortcomings and holes in many of the plans and assumptions we believed in with regard to our ability to effectively and efficiently respond as a nation. Hurricane Katrina’s destruction exceeded the ability of the response that federal, state, and local officials were prepared to deploy. The responses and resources that had been successful for previous natural disasters proved inadequate for Katrina. Our prepositioned equipment and teams, although they mirrored and even exceeded what had been previously assembled, were quickly overwhelmed. The same firefighting mindset “residential tactical mentality” that often plagues us in unusual or unfamiliar fires seems to have occurred to our emergency planners. The initial Katrina response may be characterized as a “generic hurricane mentality,” but Katrina was anything but generic.

The initial response suffered from a lack of communication, coordination, and situational awareness. Katrina exposed weaknesses such as a lack of expertise in the areas of response, recovery, and leadership at local, state, and federal political levels. Katrina proved the need for greater integration and understanding of the responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments in requesting, managing, and supporting responses to natural disasters. Most importantly, Katrina has revealed that assumptions on which we have based disaster plans cannot be accepted as universal. I will focus here on some of the most significant aspects of the response and the reactions they caused.

Change is often brought about most quickly by dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction was widespread among the internal and external customer base of the first responders. Responders complained of a lack of coordination and direction, and citizens complained of slow reactions to their plight. The causes of much of the dissatisfaction have been identified. The leadership locally, statewide, and federally agreed that communications and situational awareness were poor and compounded by the already staggering responsibilities confronting responders. Katrina was the first ever declared Incident of National Significance; as such, lessons learned are being considered to be of “national significance.”


The universal complaints from responders of civil search and rescue (SAR), urban search and rescue (US&R), and the two-person customer service teams were poor coordination, lost time, and lack of leadership. These conditions placed action-oriented teams in a holding pattern that demoralized and frustrated the members.

Understandably, there are some justifiable reasons for some of the delay and confusion as to where to set up and extend aid first. The condition of several communities and their subsequent needs were unknown because of the unprecedented storm surge that at more than 25 feet in height traveled in some locations for more than six miles inland, destroying entire communities’ infrastructure and eliminating all means of communication-in effect, destroying all the local first responder capabilities.

The lack of information and accurate reporting resulted in SAR and US&R resources being shifted numerous times as reports and information became available. This lack of information and situational awareness led to teams’ being held in staging and left idle while needs unknown were left unanswered. This also led to the discovery of assets unused because the system was too poorly developed to include resources not routinely used prior to FEMA’s becoming part of DHS. The example most often cited is not using the Department of Interior’s flat-bottom boats despite their having been offered several times.

Local and state efforts are already beginning to address the internal dissatisfaction regarding the underuse and misuse of fire service assets highlighted in Katrina. The national mutual-aid discussion had already begun to be engaged prior to Katrina; however, with Katrina, it is being fast tracked. The fire service leaders have moved rapidly to address the deployment issues where they are needed most, at the local level. To ensure better coordination of resources, the International Association of Fire Chiefs has initiated the Fire Service Mutual Aid System Task Force (MASTF). The fire service intrastate and interstate mutual-aid response systems, when completed, will result in better coordination of future responses.

MASTF is a two-pronged approach, first as an Intrastate Mutual Aid System focused on solving the resource and deployment issues locally, neighbor to neighbor, with a standard format that can be used in routine local emergencies. This well-thought-out strategy will allow for and develop the relationships and operating procedures locally and naturally as the participants mutually benefit. This may seem overly simplistic to some, but success locally sets us up to support an Interstate Mutual Aid System for national or more significant events-major events where resources working within the EMAC can be better used and more efficiently managed. MASTF is a system working within several states: Towns provide supporting aid to their neighboring states. This initiative will assist the nation’s firefighters with resource and deployment agreements grounded in established, recognized benchmarks and standards-not personal relationships and annually processed parochial agreements.

The completion of MASTF and its integration with EMAC should begin to ensure better initial 48-hour post-event responses. Local resources and local players who can deploy quickly and understand the terrain will greatly improve the level of reporting to state and federal managers who must then deploy state and federal assets to back up the local responders. This plan requires the continued local and national support of well-staffed, -trained, and -equipped regional first responders. One of the issues cited as a major impediment to comprehensive planning and response was the wide disparity in resources from one community to another.

This lack of conformity and capability will be minimized by the work of MASTF, but it will not be eliminated; that will happen only with continued increases in funding. The marriage of MASTF and EMAC, when completed, should ensure that assets, such as the swift water rescue teams, debris removal contractors, and animal rescue teams, can be more readily accessed and more richly used in future natural disasters. The water teams deployed under the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), which directs and coordinates the EMACS, were moved in as soon as the magnitude of the flooding was clear. These teams from Texas, California, North Carolina, and Maryland were integrated with the US&R elements. This activity was the result of tremendous innovation and a true understanding of the incident’s needs and severity. The leadership of the California teams was insightful and dynamic enough to refuse to accept bureaucracy as an impediment to supporting the citizens in need in Louisiana.

The EMAC system currently has some shortcomings. Teams deployed through these compacts do not routinely carry the same capabilities for self-sufficiency as the US&R and SAR teams. The EMAC teams very often require the assistance of the local requesting community to supply shelter and food. The management and logistical support of EMAC-requested assets will require better coordination from the NEMA and FEMA; hopefully, MASTF will be the link these systems need.

On the federal level, work has begun to enhance and improve working plans and intercommunications between and in support of the Emergency Support Functions (ESF) of the National Response Plan (NRP) to allow for greater sharing of resources and better integration of operational plans. The director of Homeland Security has identified the need for more effective coordination of resources. The Department of Interior, Department of Transportation, FEMA, EPA, HHS, US&R, and SAR resources will begin to operate under a more coordinated plan using the NRP and NIMS as the organizational structure.

Prior to Katrina, several agencies tasked with responding had little or no understanding of how the incident command system (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) operated. Key positions had not been filled and training had not been supplied for positions that were critical to coordinating the federal response. This is an oversight and level of complacency that trained and experienced responders never would have tolerated. The issue is being addressed on several fronts; education in ICS and NIMS is now mandatory for all persons assigned and appointed. The selection of key persons to fill 1,500 full-time jobs as core FEMA disaster specialists-who can staff positions in a national operations center, respond as field assessment experts, and perform critical ICS functions where and when needed-has begun.


It is interesting that Katrina impacted communications not in terms of interoperability but in terms of basic operability. The local and state authorities must work to ensure that basic communication tools, radios, and cell phones are available to replace or restock devices lost in disasters. The greater issue of interoperability is secondary. The safety and survival of local first responders should take precedence and be established or restored as the first order of business. The issue of interoperability in Katrina was rightfully second to the ability to just establish secure and reliable communications for single agencies. It is plainly evident that rapidly deployable, commercial, off-the-shelf equipment must be kept in constant backup by local authorities for when there is a critical need. It was apparent that interoperability was critical as well to coordinate interagency operations; we must ensure that unified command and integrated planning will help bridge the technological shortcoming we are going to face in the future. Simple activities such as exchanging radios, sharing operational planning, and attending briefings of interagency partners were often cited as alleviating much of the technological barriers.

Federally, a National Emergency Communications Strategy is being considered to address a full range of responses from natural to terrorist. The goal is to enhance operability and support future interoperability in emergency communications capabilities. On the federal level, reports suggest the NRP should develop and direct training on communications operations when responding to a disaster. Communications procedures and guidelines should be defined, implemented, and practiced through simulations and exercises. This will be critical as communication at some types of events will require radically different styles and procedures. Reports further recommend that DHS develop and maintain a national crisis communications system to support information exchange from the President, across the federal government, and down to the state level.

There is much discussion as to the quality of the communications when the FEMA director is filtered by the DHS director when reporting to the President. Many argue that the FEMA director should be a direct report to the President-if not always, then in national emergencies. Many believe this direct communication would provide the President with a more accurate picture of the event. The ability of the FEMA director to avoid the middleman, so to speak, gives more credibility and control to the FEMA director.

Although DHS has mobile emergency response support (MERS) units deployable, not all MERS were utilized in Katrina. The belief here is that a reserve should be kept for secondary events. Many have questioned this logic, and clearly the additional support to the communications capabilities is reflected in after-action reports. The federal reports state the need for DHS to establish and maintain a deployable communications capability. This deployment of equipment and personnel must be capable of quickly gaining and retaining situational awareness when responding to catastrophic incidents. This capability should ensure decision makers at all levels of government have accurate and complete data to assess courses of action.


Logistics and support became major issues as supplies and relief support were misdirected and poorly tracked. There were numerous reports of shipments being diverted and delayed because of a lack of accountability and tracking. The federal government is considering establishing a state-of-the-art radio frequency (RF) technology tracking system, such as those used in major department stores, to track and account for supplies and commodities requested and delivered during emergencies. The Department of Homeland Security, in coordination with state and local authorities, is being encouraged to develop a modern, flexible, and transparent logistics system. This system should be based on established contracts for stockpiling commodities at the local level for emergencies and the provision of goods and services during emergencies. By ensuring local stockpiles, there can be reduced reflex time in providing supplies to the citizens directly affected.

The federal government and, specifically, FEMA have recognized the need to develop the capacity to conduct large-scale logistical operations. FEMA recognizes that the expectation exists that it currently can conduct such operations. These logistical operations may be called on in catastrophic events to replace state and local logistical systems. FEMA and DHS are reviewing state and federal plans to ensure that contracts for critical goods and services are preestablished. Such contracting practices would eliminate time-consuming and inefficient negotiations during emergencies. State governments need to identify their anticipated requirements by local area threat assessment and worst-case scenario planning. Once these needs are identified and solutions established, the states then need to coordinate with DHS to ensure that contingency contracts are executed to meet those needs. This redundancy will ensure that, if the local stockpile or resource is lost or incapacitated, a backup is available.

Much of what citizens require in disasters, as witnessed during Katrina, is not state or federal property; much of what is needed are private consumables. To address this need, local and state governments should establish contracts with private sector vendors for disaster relief supplies in advance of an emergency. The government has work to do to repair its reputation with regard to reimbursement. If a state emergency network cannot address these needs, the federal government through DHS should be capable of supplying the needed goods and services.

The system should be comprehensive so that the full range of logistical requirements and the flow of goods and services can be tracked from provider to receiver. The system should take into account all the sources of logistical provisions such as mutual-aid agreements within states and EMAC agreements between states. The system must be able to support and equip all types of teams, responders, and communities. The issue of typing and standardization has to be recognized to allow a logistical operation of such expansive dimensions to function.


Katrina is responsible for the loss of more than 1,300 lives and, as of this writing, approximately 2,096 people from the Gulf Coast area are still reported missing. Of the reported dead, an estimated 80 percent came from the New Orleans metro area. The fact that in some cases 58 hours prior to the event people were asked to leave makes it even harder to accept such a staggering loss. It is important now to recognize that citizens may from complacency, inability, or lack of respect for the awesome forces of nature choose not to or be unable to leave. This one aspect of Katrina must change forever our deployment and recovery operations, locally and federally, for natural disasters.

This devastating loss of life, coupled with the dire predictions of weather experts that we may be entering a 10-year cycle for increased hurricane activity, necessitates that we look at how we as a service can better coordinate our efforts. It is also a call to action for metropolitan centers, where not all citizens have the ability to self evacuate: Now they must prepare to do more for the nonmobile citizenry.

The mission of several organizations during Katrina morphed into what the public expectations were, not to the mission, vision, and values of the organization stated prior to Katrina. This was most evident in what citizens expected of FEMA.

Katrina also highlighted the need for strong support from local government. The leadership of a city needs to be secure and visible at all times. Leaders need to be mobile and supported to effectively manage and assess the needs of the community. Local leadership has the authority to direct and enforce local ordinances and special decrees without formal declarations and time-consuming paperwork.

A lengthy federal report states the following: “We conclude with the most important chapter: ‘Transforming National Preparedness.’ ” It describes the imperative and remedies for fixing the problems that Hurricane Katrina exposed. The foundations of the recommended reforms result in two immediate priorities: We must institutionalize a comprehensive National Preparedness System and concurrently foster a new, robust Culture of Preparedness. It is always the best course to strive for excellence; however, the local preparedness and the ability of neighbors to support and defend neighbors will always be the cornerstone of any good emergency management program. It is our hope the next disaster is better managed, less property is damaged, and no lives are lost. This lofty ideal, of course, is hopelessly optimistic, but, looking toward the future as true Americans, it must be our goal.

BOBBY HALTON is editor in chief of Fire Engineering and education director of the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC). He began his career in structural firefighting with the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department in 1984, attained national registry as a paramedic, was chief of training, and rose to the rank of chief of operations until his retirement from that department in 2004. He then became chief of the Coppell (TX) Fire Department. Halton is a graduate of the University of New Mexico, left a member in good standing with the International Association of Fire Fighters, is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and has served on several National Fire Protection Association technical committees. He has done extensive speaking and training for the fire service in the United States and Canada.

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