Prepare Now: Ready Your Crews for a Large-Scale Event


Disaster headlines are common. Earthquakes, hurricanes, hazmats, and terrorist events occur somewhere almost daily. A common thread among events is the presence of a fire department filling a critical role. Is your department ready for such an event? Many fire departments have moved forward with mutual-aid agreements and policy revisions that increase their ability to meet new challenges in collaboration with other agencies. Fewer have concentrated on ensuring their crews are prepared to continue service delivery in the aftermath of a large-scale event. Simple actions taken now can increase your chances of providing services later. Failing to take action now may make firefighters victims instead of responders, with potentially drastic results for your community.

From a system perspective, the most effective approach to disaster preparation at the station level might be to develop and implement departmentwide plans. Such an approach could help ensure that all stations and firefighters will be prepared to sustain operations should a disaster strike their community. However, such an approach presupposes not only managerial awareness of the challenge but also sufficient fiscal resources. For many fire departments, especially smaller, rural organizations, this will always be problematic. Larger departments in urban and urbanized suburban areas are more likely to be better funded, but the current economic pressures on fire departments suggest that new, costly initiatives are unlikely to move forward in the foreseeable future. This article provides simple, relatively inexpensive preparations that crews and individuals can carry out.

The model for disaster response in the United States, based on the National Response Framework, the Stafford Act, and the National Incident Management System, holds that disasters are primarily local events. State and federal agencies will provide assistance but only after having been requested to do so through proper channels, and then only if local and state resources have been exhausted. Although some state and federal agencies may pre-position response and recovery resources near the projected impact of forecasted disasters such as hurricanes, they usually place them far enough away from the projected point of impact so that they are not adversely affected by the disaster. This means that there will still be some time between the impact of the event and the arrival of those resources.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), local agencies should plan on not receiving substantive external aid for 72 to 120 hours after an event. For some catastrophic incidents, the delay in receiving distant federal and international resources may be even longer. Hurricane Katrina is one example. How well will your crews bear up during this time? We all expect them to do their best; firefighters are known for that. But what can fire officers do to make that best better?

Over the past few decades, the fire service has seen its mission expand from fire suppression to a myriad of associated services, including special operations capabilities like urban search and rescue and swift water rescue. However, there is a difference between preparing for a large-scale disaster and for our daily “bread-and-butter” emergencies. A key difference is the time before relief arrives. Traditionally, at the end of a shift, firefighters, career and volunteer, have been relieved by others reporting to complete the work or prepare for the next challenge. In the case of a disaster, firefighters will be expected to remain on scene for hours, days, or even weeks after the projected end of their shift, toiling as part of a large-scale, ongoing response. If the fire service is to continue providing quality service to the community in the aftermath of a disaster, firefighters must be prepared to sustain themselves for this long haul.


Even though the organization may be prepared to act within an overarching, intergovernmental response, it faces challenges in implementing such preparations if crews are not prepared to sustain themselves until external aid arrives. This includes having firefighters prepared with provisions for food, water, shelter, health and hygiene, and family support.


You should take into consideration several factors when planning for the necessary food. The foods acquired should not need refrigeration. Stored goods must remain edible for some time. You must check their expiration dates occasionally. The foods should be easy to prepare; ideally, they should be meals that can be eaten without being cooked. If heating is necessary, consider a “Sterno” stove or some other simple heating device that can be used to cook foods in their cans. Be sure that the cooking is done in a safe, well-ventilated area. Military-style meals ready-to-eat (MREs) are attractive options. MREs now include selections with self-heating packages for warming the meals.

The foods should be filling and nourishing, especially if workers will be engaged in strenuous activity for long periods. Some examples include canned soups and meats or pasta dishes. Modern packaging techniques have greatly expanded the potential food selections over the past few decades. Even milk may be purchased in containers that need no refrigeration.

Second, variety is a must. Although firefighters may be sustained with the same food meal after meal, day after day, a variety in meals will be more palatable and will uplift the morale.

Third, plan for firefighter snacks. Consider comfort foods such as trail mix, canned fruit, and other foods to help firefighters sate hunger needs between meals. Pack such items in a personal field kit that can be easily carried on the apparatus or in a small pack for those working in the field.

Last, consider having disposable utensils, plates, bowls, and cups, eliminating the need to wash them. Ensure that you have trash bags to collect waste.

Some larger fire departments stockpile disaster supplies for their crews in fire stations or centralized facilities. In some instances, they are carried on every unit. Often, stockpiled foodstuffs have relatively lengthy shelf lives, need little preparation, and are easily transportable. Such a proactive approach to disaster preparedness recognizes that some disasters, such as earthquakes and tornadoes, may strike without warning, negating the possibility of acquiring supplies at the last moment. Such initiatives support the ability of first responders to conduct round-the-clock emergency operations for many days without being resupplied. Mirroring this approach, FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams, Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMATs), and Disaster Mortuary Assistance Teams (DMORTs) stockpile supplies before a deployment, ensuring that operations on scene will be sustained in the aftermath of a disaster without requiring support from the affected locality for some time. This approach, although effective, can be costly.


As a rule of thumb, people require a minimum of one gallon of water each day to survive; this includes water for hygiene requirements. As anyone knows, people engaged in strenuous activities in climactic extremes require more fluids. With that in mind, plan to provide at least six gallons per person, which should be considered a 72-hour supply.

Many fire departments stockpile and distribute bottled water for use in on-scene rehabilitation. If these supplies are purchased in bulk for potential disaster operations, the bottled water may be cycled through stations for use in rehabilitation. This will greatly reduce the potential for the stockpiled supplies to go bad, requiring that they be disposed of before they can be used. Many fire departments facing the potential for “no-notice” disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, or flash flooding, may maintain separate disaster water supplies in all facilities, accepting the possibility of discarding supplies without use at some point as a “cost of doing business.”

Although some references suggest storing water in tubs or lined trashcans, consider this as a last resort for reasons related to hygiene and morale. One option for storing water containers is to keep empty plastic milk or soda containers in the station. They are designed for storing liquids. They may be easily stored: The empty containers can be hung from the rafters or joists in some corner of the bay. When needed, they may easily be accessed and filled. Since they are small, workers can easily transport them in the field. This option works well for disasters with some notice such as hurricanes but not for unexpected disasters like tornados or earthquakes. Another option of last resort is the station water heater. With the power or fuel secured and the intake valves closed, the heater water vessel will often contain more than enough water for several firefighters for several days.

Consider also a personal water supply for the apparatus. Many fire departments routinely carry a large water jug for the crew, but when firefighters are moving over a larger area, they may wish to have fluids available. Small water bottles can be used during transportation, and crews could easily carry them when conducting searches or removing debris over a larger area remote from the apparatus. Include the bottles in a personal field kit.


Fire stations in the United States vary greatly. Some communities have highly modern facilities. In some communities, the stations were built to house horse-drawn fire engines. Regardless of age, few were built with disaster survivability in mind. Assess each site to determine how its structural characteristics will meet the demands of a specific event. However, there are preparations that may increase the likelihood stations will continue to be serviceable in some measure.

If the station were to lose its power, how would you light the workspace? How would you provide air-conditioning or heat? We often rely on generators, but they can fail or run out of fuel. Should the department stipulate that a minimum quantity of fuel be in-station? If so, what should that level be? For in-station, nonemergency use, lights with hand-powered dynamos may provide a reliable lighting source. Never use candles and lanterns with open flames.

Climactic extremes may make it difficult to rehabilitate firefighters. In hot weather, it may be necessary to set up some form of outside patio, covered by tarps, to provide relief from the heat. In extreme cases, fill an improvised water tank with water to provide a pool for cooling crews. In cold weather, create “snow porches” at entrances using tarps, providing a transition zone for disrobing. Such improvised porches can prevent ice and snow from getting into the building, which could make the inside of the building colder and wetter.

In a worst-case scenario, when should the station be abandoned? Must firefighters wait for directions from above, or can company officers use some basic guidelines to determine when a station should be abandoned, such as if there is significant structural damage? Where should the crews go? Ideally, this should be determined beforehand and arrangements should be in place to have an alternate facility receive them. What should crews take when they abandon a site? If the danger is imminent, they should move quickly. If they have time, what should they take—radios and chargers? Official records? Fuel cans? Mattresses? Personal disaster kits? Create a basic checklist of what should be taken along with some basic guidance on what should be prepared for transport just in case a station evacuation becomes necessary.

Health and Hygiene

For most fire incidents, relief is only hours away. The incident scene closes down, and crews return to quarters. During large-scale events such as a western wildfire or a major hazmat incident, relief may mean the end of a shift as crews are rotated through a base. In the aftermath of a disaster, relief may not be available for an indeterminate time; it may be many hours or days before resources provided through state or national mutual-aid programs arrive in force. Consequently, where this is a possibility, firefighters should consider acquiring and storing supplies needed to enhance health and hygiene.

First responders might carry on their units or maintain in a locker some supplies, as spare clothing and waterless hand cleaner, supporting extended response operations. Other issues, such as facilities for latrines or bathing, might require differing approaches for in-station application as opposed to those used during a lengthy deployment in the field. Specific considerations should include the following:

Clothing. Continued wearing of wet clothing is tiring and uncomfortable. It may lead to premature exhaustion and lowered morale. Personnel should have at least one change of clothing and, if possible, several spare pairs of socks and work gloves. Dirty clothes should be washed, if possible, and dried for reuse.

Latrines.When water and power are lost, most facilities lose their sanitary sewer system. If sewage starts to back up into the station, it will create significant health and morale issues. It may be necessary to use expandable plugs to block drainage lines, which will mean removing toilets from the floor and covers from shower drains.

An alternative toilet facility will be necessary. Although portable toilets may be provided when a full-scale disaster response is ramped up, makeshift facilities may be needed in the short term. In rural and some suburban sites, an outside latrine may be created using tarps for privacy. In urban and suburban sites where this is not possible, buckets may be used. A simple five-gallon bucket will serve as an acceptable toilet, which can be made more comfortable with a snap-on toilet seat available from many contractor supply stores. For ease of cleaning, it may be a good idea to stockpile trash bags and disinfectant. When filled or heavy, the bags should be stored on the property, distant from the building, perhaps in a large trashcan or dumpster, until they can be properly disposed of at a later time.

Place the alternative toilet facility in a room with some ventilation and lighting. For practical purposes, many stations have utility or generator rooms that are relatively isolated from the remainder of the station, which may be highly suitable.

Hygiene. Encourage crews to maintain cleanliness whenever possible. You can create solar showers using a bucket, or you can purchase them from a camping store, if water is available. Waterless hand cleaners have become a boon to firefighters, permitting them to rid their hands of bacteria quickly. Keep in mind that as valuable as such products are they are not a panacea. They do not necessarily rid firefighters’ hands of chemical residue, nor do they rinse away other potentially harmful products. Personnel should have sufficient water and soap available to effectively clean their hands, especially before eating.

Family support. In the aftermath of many disasters, there have been reports of first responders leaving the area. Often, the numbers are small, and the reports are initially exaggerated. Most of the first responders who left duty assignments said they did so because they wanted to make sure their families were safe.

In the after-action reports of many disasters, first responders have said they would be more than willing to remain on duty and do whatever is necessary but that they want to make sure their families are safe first. Many work on, hoping their families are out of danger. Some leave. It is notable that the concerns reported have nothing to do with their families being untouched by the disaster. They may not know if their homes have been spared devastation, or they may know it all too well. The concern is that their family is safe—somewhere.

Although it is easy to dismiss this as an individual concern or to state that duty comes first, it is unrealistic to expect firefighters to behave this way in a disaster. Experience and research have shown this concern is an issue. It would be wiser for fire officers to develop some form of system to proactively address this issue. This will support continued delivery of service as well as improve morale and employee-management relations.

The possibilities range from having a separate shelter for fire department employees’ families to a voluntary phone tree that permits firefighters to track their families’ whereabouts at any given time. Another alternative would be to have a group of family members or retirees staff a “family network” table at the emergency operations center or Area Command, which could be used as a clearinghouse for family contacts and information. Simply knowing their families are safe may relieve firefighters’ concerns, permitting them to continue serving the community in times of crisis.

One means of addressing family support is to encourage all firefighters to develop individual disaster preparedness plans for themselves and their families. This may have several benefits. First, it may contribute to the firefighters’ ease of mind, which should facilitate their remaining on duty and focused on the tasks at hand. Second, by exploring how better to prepare their homes and families, firefighters may begin to see new means of preparing their stations and themselves that they can implement at their own level.




Many fire departments have developed comprehensive operational plans to meet the demands of a large-scale emergency or a widespread disaster. Working with other partners at the local, state, and federal levels, as well as with private agencies like the Red Cross, many fire departments have planned to modify their capacities during a natural or man-made disaster. Personnel have been trained in mass decontamination and response to structural collapses. Equipment has been purchased to meet the demands of specialized calls, including such varied challenges as weapons of mass destruction and swift water rescues. Mutual-aid agreements designed to expand or enhance local emergency response capacity have been developed. They are all necessary and desirable, but they will fall short of the goal if the people needed to carry out response and recovery activities are not prepared. There are a variety of resources on disaster preparation available in the community. Although many of them are focused on preparing homes, businesses, and individuals, they are easily adaptable for use in preparing stations and firefighters. By preparing individual crews and firefighters, fire officers will better support the disaster preparedness of their community and the nation.

THOMAS E. POULIN, Ph.D, FIFireE, serves on the adjunct faculty at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia; Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and the National Fire Academy. He has been in the fire service since 1977 and is a battalion officer in a metro-sized fire department.

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