Tornado Teaches Topeka a Lesson
A tornado smashed through Topeka, Kans., on June 8, 1966, killing 17 persons, injuring over 500 and destroying more than $100 million worth of property.
The tornado taught Topekans many lessons—primarily that plans were completely lacking for casualty control, ambulance dispatching, and communication with hospitals. These areas have since become the responsibility of the Topeka Fire Department, and procedures and communication systems have been developed to cope with future disasters.
Fire department headquarters was notified of the impending tornado through its civil defense hot line 4 minutes before the public sirens sounded. With its paging system, headquarters notified all fire stations, which were soon turned into emergency centers as citizens flocked to the safety of station basements.
The tornado, which hit shortly after 7 p.m., bulldozed a path of destruction six blocks wide and 15 miles long through this city of 130,000. It destroyed or severely damaged over 1,000 homes and damaged nearly 2,000 others. More than 200 businesses were demolished and nearly every structure on the campus of the 3,000-student municipal university was destroyed or extensively damaged.
Telephone and power lines were down and travel through the disaster area was extremely difficult. Fire department vehicles had more than 40 flat tires during search and rescue operations.
No fire stations were damaged, but telephone and paging lines between stations were useless. Only radio communications could be maintained. Three stations lost all electric power and had to depend on radios on apparatus. At that time, only fire department headquarters had an emergency generator. Now all stations have standby units.
The major job for the firemen after the storm was search, rescue and turning off gas lines. No fires occurred, although the gas was so thick in some areas one could hardly breathe.
The town’s ambulance service, with only two ambulances available, was swamped and called on the fire department for assistance in transporting the dead and injured. There was no ambulance dispatching plan and confusion resulted. Efforts were duplicated when several ambulances or rescue units reported to the same area. Ambulances from surrounding towns often had no radio and did not know where to report.
Monitors cut confusion
The new ambulance dispatching plan is designed to eliminate this confusion and duplication of effort. Radio monitors have been placed at Topeka’s ambulance service and central fire department dispatching headquarters. By monitoring the other service’s radio frequency, each service can know the location of rescue units. Direct communications with individual units can still be made only through the appropriate dispatchers.
The voluntary support of ambulance services in a 75-mile area around the city has been enlisted. In an emergency, these ambulances will report to an assigned fire station, usually the one closest to their entry into the city. Assignments will then be given to them by the fire dispatcher.
With three general hospitals, a large veterans hospital, and several specialized hospitals, there were ample facilities and medical care personnel to care for the more than 500 tornado casualties. However, the major casualty load was at Stormont-Vail Hospital, where a building project was under way. This limited the space about the hospital and hindered the flow of vehicles to the emergency room. Stormont-Vail and another hospital were on standby emergency power and lacked both inside and outside telephone service. The third large hospital had no such problems. But there was no communication between hospitals, so no shifting of the casualty overload was possible.
Hospital hot line installed
Now an underground hospital hot line, equipped for emergency power, has been installed. It is the primary alerting system for the hospitals and will be utilized for casualty control. The line links the dispatcher at central fire headquarters with the three general hospitals, veterans hospital, three specialized hospitals, the county medical society, the city-county health center and Civil Defense headquarters. Each location may be called separately or linked together in a conference call.
During an alert the director of the city-county health department, who is well-versed on the capacity of the hospitals and their disaster plans, will report to fire headquarters to coordinate casualty control.
The fire department dispatcher has the responsibility of issuing weather warnings over the hospital hot line. A newly installed teletypewriter notifies the dispatcher of storm conditions. In a three-month period last summer, the dispatcher handled over 30 weather warnings ranging from the possibility of a severe thunderstorm to a tornado alert.
Dispatching setup expanded
The two new disaster plans and the overload on the dispatcher during the tornado made it imperative to enlarge the central fire dispatching facility to include dual radio positions. Also, a ham radio unit, which had been cast aside, has been rehabilitated and placed at fire dispatching headquarters. This enables the department to contact the Kaw Valley Radio Club, whose members act as weather watchers. In their radioequipped cars, they keep the fire department informed of a weather buildup 30 or 40 miles from the city.
If a tornado or other disaster destroys or severely damages the dispatching facilities at fire headquarters, new switching arrangements will transfer all calls to a completely selfsustaining backup dispatching facility at the civil defense emergency operating center. This is in the subbasement of the county courthouse and was built to withstand a nuclear blast.
Emergency generators were in demand immediately after the tornado. Officials did not realize that the fire department had a portable generator as well as two aerial trucks and two ladder trucks equipped for emergency service. Now a reference file at Civil Defense headquarters describes all specialized equipment maintained by the department and lists their locations.
Until the tornado, fire department disaster plans were merely word of mouth. Now they have been compiled into a notebook kept by all key personnel. Included in the file is a chain-of-command chart which lets everyone know whom to report to.
The ambulance dispatching and casualty control plans and other improvements made by the Topeka Fire Department have yet to receive a severe test. However, the department feels the lessons learned from the tornado will help them efficiently handle any future disaster.