Weaknesses in Emergency Planning, Mutual Aid Use Aired at Conference
Common disaster management problems for fire fighters and rescue workers were discussed at a recent statewide emergency care conference in Robbinsdale, Minn.
“Around the country, there has been very little fire chief participation in emergency preparedness planning,” said Paul Boecker, chairman of the emergency preparedness committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and chief of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire District, Lisle, Ill.
A fault common to many disasters was failure to initially recognize the magnitude of the situation, which can delay or adversely affect implementation of the pre-plan. As a result, we have far too many deaths and injuries, explained Chief Donald Johnson of the Columbia Heights Fire Department, who is vice president of the Fire Instructors Association of Minnesota.
“We’re not making the proper basic decisions,” he said. “By tradition, the fire service responds with aggressive early action. But in some cases, such as transportation accidents involving hazardous materials and the possibility of a massive explosion, rushing in may not be the best plan.”
Mutual aid planning
Recurring problems with mutual aid response in several disasters indicated a need for stronger planning to assure an effective and efficient emergency operation. It’s not unusual for a disaster plea to go out on a mutual aid channel: “Send all available help.” In response, rescue units from one to 100 miles away may rush to the affected community.
An immediate staging area should be established at the perimeter of the disaster area for arriving mutual aid units. This will help to provide an orderly operation, and may be essential if there is limited access to the disaster area.
John Peige, then of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute at the University of Maryland and now executive editor of Firehouse, noted, for example, that a steep, narrow quarter-mile road was the only access to the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., where 164 persons died in a fire on May 28,1977.
The fire chief should place one of his officers in command of the staging area and call for help as needed. Mutual aid companies and ambulance crews should
receive directions at the staging area so they know where to go and what to do.
Conference speakers reported that fatigue among fire-rescue workers is a frequent problem and that some of them may need time to help their own families after a disaster. The staging area also can be used to spell emergency workers and serve as a place to feed them.
Pre-disaster plans for emergency operations centers (EOC) were discussed with the following recommendations:
1. They should not be established too close to the scene if, as in the case of hazardous materials, there is the possibility of an explosion. They always can be moved forward later.
2. If the EOC cannot be clearly identified by a stranger, then it should be marked with a flag or some other symbol.
3. One radio-equipped vehicle from each of the primary support services (fire, police, medical, utilities, ham radio, etc.) should be parked in a circle or semi-circle around the EOC. This will ensure quick, orderly communication between the EOC and all services.
4. Have a working EOC and a second EOC closer to the disaster area for VIPs and the news media. This will reduce confusion and congestion.
Caring for casualties
Radio/telephone communication between the EOC and nearby hospitals is essential to get the injured to the right place and to prepare for their arrival, said G. Patrick Lilja, M.D., director of emergency services at North Memorial Medical Center, which sponsored the conference April 12 and 13 in cooperation with the Minnesota Rescue and First Aid Association.
Lilja said he thinks some disaster pre-plans overemphasize the need for triage at the disaster scene. He favors limited triage because in many cases it can be done better at the hospital.
“Those who are unconscious, for example, should be transported to the hospital without delay,” he explained. “We also find that many of the less seriously injured are taken to the hospital by passersby in station wagons, vans and pickup trucks before rescue workers arrive.”
He noted that in bad weather, especially in cold northern winter conditions, it’s difficult to assess injuries outside.
Lilja, also an associate physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, said recent evidence indicates paramedics have a tendency to spend too much time administering advanced life support when mass casualties are present. If skilled medical help is limited, he explained, it might be better for the paramedic and EMT to plan to supervise volunteers so that all of the injured get some help—not just a few.
Working with news media
Dealing with the news media in a major emergency surfaced as a frequent difficulty that could be corrected with better planning. Several speakers stressed the demonstrated need to have a previously designated fire officer with full time responsibility for communicating with the news media at a disaster.
“The news media are a valuable link between emergency services and the public in time of need,” explained Hugh Strawn, fire marshal for the Hopkins, Minn. Fire Department and a former news reporter.
He said the fire chief needs to know how to use the news media, but “it can’t be done on a hit and miss basis.” Strawn and other speakers made the following basic planning recommendations:
- Emphasize local radio/TV contacts because they get messages to the public fast. Meet with them periodically to discuss how best to use their services. Have their unlisted telephone number because the regular news media switchboard may be tied up when you call.
- Prepare in advance a carefully worded statement for use if an emergency evacuation is necessary. (Hasty statements can create public panic in a disaster.)
- Determine in advance who will make official statements—and who will not make statements. This will ensure unified communication to the public in an emergency.
- Establish a place for the news media to get information. Police roadblocks should know there is a press area and direct reporters to it.
- Keep news media in a press area, if possible, but provide half-hour or frequent escorted tours of the disaster area for reporters and VIP personnel.