At a disaster, in addition to performing rescue operations, responders may be called on to evacuate the disaster area as part of their mission to protect lives. Because of the need to make an evacuation decision early on at an incident and because responders will be involved in carrying out the evacuation of the immediate area, they should be prepared to organize and direct the entire evacuation operation.

Primary evacuation involves removing people from the immediate danger area and normally is completed by first-responding firefighters. Secondary evacuation is of adjacent areas and generally is carried out by the police.

Time elements also factor into the evacuation plan: the time elapsed from when the incident occurs until the decision is made to evacuate, the time it takes to notify evacuees, the time it takes for people to mobilize and begin evacuation, the required travel time to outside the danger zone, and the length of time evacuees must stay away.

After the evacuation, firefighters will be called on to initiate and often direct the protective action of sheltering–providing a safe haven for evacuees. Major disasters such as floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, and hazardous-materials releases require a combination of evacuation and sheltering.


Planning for evacuation and sheltering should begin long before an incident occurs. Usually, evacuation procedures are established as part of the community`s disaster plan, which is coordinated by local emergency management officials. This planning will lead to the coordination and cooperation among responding agencies necessary during the event. The plan should cover the following:

Who can order an evacuation.

The resources (materials and personnel) required for primary and secondary evacuations.

Maps indicating evacuation routes, response routes into the area, alternate routes, possible evacuation centers, food supplies, medical and pharmaceutical needs, and available transportation (especially at the target hazards–the areas of high potential losses).

Potential problem situations such as schools, hospitals, penal institutions, and livestock.

Assistance from the military, which may become involved in sheltering and security.

A means of determining evacuation perimeters and enforcing them. (For example, a municipal garbage truck parked across an intersection could serve as a quick, mobile, radio-equipped barricade, if necessary.)

Procedures for receiving and recording evacuees, their care, and their return to evacuated areas.

Procedures for evacuating locations with known large quantities of or potentially dangerous hazardous materials (both at stationary facilities and on transportation routes).

Evacuation routes that will not interfere with emergency response routes.

How to move people who may not be able to drive (due to poor visibility from a gas cloud), who need assistance (very young, very old, or impaired), or who have to be moved (nursing home residents). You may need buses from municipal transit authorities, charter buses, and large numbers of ambulances and police cars.

Estimated capacity of streets and roadways. The evacuation must be kept moving. Many people will be in personal vehicles. Plan for controlling and directing traffic around incident-caused obstructions, numerous traffic lights, and disabled/abandoned vehicles.

Fuel shortage. This can become a major problem when service stations are evacuated. Make sure gasoline and diesel fuel are available at selected locations for public and emergency vehicles. A mobile fuel supply may be required.

Locating shelter sites and procedures for operating them. Consider site proximity to the incident, food services, sanitation facilities, and sleeping areas. You may want to use armories, churches, service and church-related clubs, tents, and schools. Schools are good choices because they generally have toilet facilities for a larger population, more adequate water supplies, a kitchen, the privacy afforded by separate classrooms, and an equipped nurse`s station.

Designating shelter managers. Retired police and fire personnel make good center managers. You need competent, innovative managers who are skilled people handlers. The Red Cross can provide additional shelter support.

Handling pets. Unattended pets can wreak havoc at an evacuation center. One option is to assign control officers to the center with their vehicles to house animals. Animals also require food, water, litter, and so on. Relocating large animals (such as livestock) also may be necessary.

Identifying and planning for problems at evacuation centers. Problems include finding people who work well under stress to be in charge, controlling rumors, reuniting separated families, dealing with language barriers, and providing creature comforts. People may need insulin and other medication. They also will be fearful–for their families, their welfare, and their possessions. Center managers must ensure that this fear does not lead to panic and further chaos.

Keeping records. You must plan for keeping track of people at evacuation centers. Reuniting families is paramount.

Communications. Preplan procedures for warning people to evacuate, communicating among evacuation centers, and notifying people of when it is safe to return home. Plan for any special instructions that you may need to give to people returning to their homes (if contamination of food and property is possible, for example, or if gas pockets may be present).


At an incident, once the IC establishes the initial perimeter, he must decide whether to evacuate further or attempt to protect the people in place. The IC should consider the following:

What is the event`s expansion potential? (How much material is left to spread? At what level will the water crest? How long will the storm last?)

Is in-place shelter a possibility?

How will weather affect the incident?

How much warning time is necessary if conditions worsen?

What are the worst-case scenarios of not evacuating?

What is the estimated evacuation time, and is that much time available?

Civilians generally leave or cooperate with little urging when they perceive the threat and how damaging that threat will be to them, when they have been given specific instructions by authorities for their protection, and when they are ensured of the safety of their loved ones.

After the IC opts for evacuation, he must delegate staff to do the following:

Notify people of the evacuation, telling them when, where, and how to go.

Transport those requiring assistance.

Keep the public informed as the incident progresses. n

GENE P. CARLSON, a fire education and training specialist, is director of international marketing of Oklahoma State University`s Fire Protection Publications, representing IFSTA nationally and internationally. Carlson is a member of various committees of the National Fire Protection Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He served on the staff of the National Fire Academy, the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and the University of Illinois Firemanship Training Program.

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