Fire Department Perspective on Mass Evacuation


On March 10, 2004, dispatchers for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) received a report that an out-of-control Long Island Railroad locomotive was roaring toward several crossings near the Queens-Brooklyn border of New York City. Within this residential/industrial section of the city, hundreds of new chemicals are developed and transported each year. Area citizens and officials are concerned about potential accidents and acts of terrorism.

This section of Brooklyn is not alone in its predicament. Of significance, 93 percent of more than 3,100 localities completing a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) questionnaire in 1985 identified one or more hazardous-materials risks as a significant threat to their community. According to one study conducted in 1987, nearly 300 identified evacuations were attributed to chemical releases alone in the United States during a five-year period.

As the runaway locomotive plowed through automobiles as they crossed the tracks at three spots along the Bushwick, Brooklyn, branch, it left behind a path of destruction and burning debris. The locomotive concluded its run by striking two trucks owned by the New York and Atlantic Railway a few blocks away, subsequently sparking a major fire near some tanks containing acetylene and oxygen. Ultimately, firefighters arrived on the scene and initiated firefighting procedures complemented by an evacuation of the area.

To prevent mass casualties, FDNY is often involved in mass evacuations of civilians from dangerous or potentially dangerous zones. Although the Police Department of New York and occasionally military personnel are prominently involved with evacuations, the fire department usually provides expertise and direction.

Fires in occupied buildings frequently necessitate evacuation of the occupants. Firefighters have always been involved in such evacuations, just as they were in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Whole blocks of residences and businesses, and ultimately the lower portion of Manhattan, had to be evacuated.

Because of the potential for hazardous-materials incidents like the above described runaway locomotive, the reality of living in a post-9-11 world, and the fact that local governments will be completely on their own in the first stages of almost any incident, communities must continue to enhance their preparedness.


A viable emergency plan is critical to preparedness. A report prepared by FEMA on 242 evacuations of all types and sizes shows that communities rely on evacuation as a primary means of protecting their citizens. However, the majority of evacuations cited were implemented on an ad hoc basis without a viable emergency operations plan (EOP). Every jurisdiction should have not only an all-hazards EOP but also a complete and sound evacuation annex.

Much of the information in this article is based on knowledge I acquired while completing my graduate studies in fire protection management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 471, Recommended Practice for Responding to Hazardous Materials Incidents; NFPA 472, Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents; and NFPA 473, Professional Competence of Emergency Medical Personnel at Hazardous Materials Incidents.

These standards provide excellent guidelines for dividing personnel and resources among varying danger zones during a mass-evacuation incident. Moreover, the NFPA strongly recommends that a functional annex to a disaster plan be drafted. In response to SARA Title III, the National Response Team (NRT) produced the Hazardous Materials Emergency Planning Guide, a product of the cooperative efforts of the 14 federal agencies that constitute the NRT. The NRT Guide lists components that should be included in a functional annex on evacuation. They are presented here as guidelines.

  • Title of person and alternate(s) who can order an evacuation.
  • Vulnerable zones where evacuation could be necessary and a method for notifying persons in these places.
  • Provisions for a precautionary evacuation.
  • Methods for controlling traffic flow and providing alternate traffic routes.
  • Shelter locations and other provisions for evacuation—for example, hospitals with special needs.
  • Agreements with nearby jurisdictions to receive evacuees.
  • Agreements with hospitals outside the local jurisdictions.
  • Protective shelter for relocated populations.
  • Reception and care of evacuees.
  • Reentry procedures.


Evacuation will be the most sweeping response to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) events. The plan should clearly identify the circumstances under which evacuation would be appropriate and necessary. The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Emergency Response Guidebook lists distance parameters for evacuating unprotected people from the scene of a chemical-release incident during the initial phase. It is important to distinguish between general evacuation of the entire area and selective evacuation of part of the risk zone.

In December 2002, the Department of Defense (DoD) developed uniform facilities codes (UFCs), which were published as DoD Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings. These UFCs require mass notification, intended to provide a “timely means to notify building occupants of threats and instruct them [in] what to do in response to those threats.” In either case, the plan should identify how people will be moved.

On 9-11, as in the case of the runaway locomotive, the fire department’s operations center made provisions for quickly moving traffic out of the risk zone and also for preventing outside traffic from entering the risk zone. Additionally, for the schools located in the risk zone, predetermined locations were designated as meeting places for students and parents. Special attention was also paid to evacuating hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the mentally disabled.


Lessons learned from 9-11 were used in the runaway locomotive incident. Considerations of when and how evacuees would be able to return to their homes were incorporated into the annex to our emergency plan. Also, the annex includes a description of how the fire department and police department would coordinate with the medical community. We were able to do this primarily because copies of the 9-11 evacuation procedures were provided to all appropriate agencies and organizations; some plans, such as those of the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, were published in the local newspapers.


The fire department incident commander should consider the following questions when evacuating. The answers will determine what goes into the plan and what is important in the on-scene decision-making process.

Why Evacuate?

How much material is left to explode, spread as a gas, etc?

  • What are the odds for an expansion?
  • What are the possibilities of in-place shelter?
  • How can weather affect the outcome?
  • What are the estimates of warning time if the event worsens?
  • What are the effects of a worst-case situation compared with the adverse effects of an evacuation?
  • What is the estimated time to evacuate compared with the time available in a worst-case development?

Who Is Evacuated?

The area to be evacuated may include the area of potential danger because of drifting gases, radioactivity, or subsequent explosions, as well as the area of actual damage. If people can make their homes reasonably airtight, are they safer from poisonous gases or radiation at home than by being subjected to the potential risks of evacuation?

Who Orders Evacuation?

This is a matter of planning. In small-scale emergencies, the first responder, first on-scene fire chief, or whoever the department standard operating procedure designates should have authority to evacuate exposed buildings or the immediate area. The plan must identify the person or persons with authority to order large-scale evacuations.

How Are People Notified?

Structure-mounted sirens; the public is trained to turn on the radio on hearing the proper warning signal.

Radio and TV announcements—for example, the emergency broadcasting system.

Phone, word of mouth.

Mobile loudspeakers from vehicles traveling up and down blocks.

Door to door.

How Are They Moved?

Resources needed to transport people from the area.

How Long?

If evacuation time is the total time from the onset of the incident until everyone has cleared the area, then it is the sum of the following:

Time delay after occurrence until the evacuation order is given.

Time required to notify the population.

Time required for people to mobilize and get underway.

Travel time required to leave the affected area.

When to Reenter?

The longer the evacuation lasts, the more tension builds among the evacuees. Keeping the area sealed off becomes a growing problem for the police, especially if no danger is perceived. My experience with reentry is that people have all kinds of reasons for reentry, from getting their medicine to feeding pets left behind.

Where To?

Shelters should be selected because they are far enough away to eliminate any chance for a secondary evacuation. In WMD and haz-mat incidents, wind direction is almost always a factor. The Red Cross and Salvation Army can be very helpful because they have experience running shelters. Also of significance here is that people will be registered, even if they don’t remain at the shelter.

How Much?

There are very little data on the detailed costs of past evacuations. Total estimated figures for an incident are sometimes given, but a breakdown into component costs, such as evacuation, is not. Even if all the data on a specific past event could be collected, their applicability to a future event may be marginal. Moreover, the cost of evacuation is not considered where danger to life is obvious.

In disasters—larger scale such as 9-11 or smaller scale such as a train wreck involving hazardous materials—we invariably deal with large numbers of people. Both types of disasters have the capability of overwhelming the fire service if there has been no advance planning and preparation for handling the large number of casualties (mass casualties) and the individuals who must be removed from the danger area (mass evacuees). Part of the vision outlined in the National Strategy for Homeland Security is to “create a fully integrated national emergency response system.” The NFPA is playing a major part in this system by coordinating and upgrading requirements of many of its already existing codes with the nation’s security requirements in the area of mass evacuation. Preplanning following the guidelines in this article could well mean the difference between order and chaos should a calamity involving large numbers of the population befall your community.

PETER W. BLAICH is a member of the Fire Department of New York, assigned to Ladder 123, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He is an accredited U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) fire protection specialist and a community emergency response team instructor trainer for the Federal Emergency Agency. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from the State University of New York and is a graduate student in fire protection management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association Fire Service Section. While assigned as a firefighter in Engine Company 9 in Manhattan, Blaich received the World Trade Center Survivor Medal in 2001.

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