Preparing for Atypical Incidents

Preparing for Atypical Incidents


Many fire departments spend time preparing and training for the type of emergency incident that has a high potential of striking their area but a low probability of actually happening. This type of incident is sometimes referred to as the “big one.” Once or twice a year, emphasis is placed on having a drill or exercise on some type of large-scale incident for which everyone wants to be prepared but hopes never to have to experience. After this shotgun focus, the command officer generally reverts to the mindset of the routine incident.

Soon the knowledge gathered from the training exercise fades into a myriad of daily problems and issues that fill 97 percent of the officer`s days. Suddenly, there is a need to come up with a plan of action for a disaster or other incident that is out of the ordinary. There is no time to plan now! You must react and be able to put together a strategy that can be implemented quickly and easily. Personnel must know their duties and their responsibilities and have the knowledge and ability to switch to a decision-making mode in which large comprehensive decisions must be made in short periods of time.

If your department hasn`t done sufficient planning and training to switch operational modes from the typical to the atypical, your atypical incidents probably don`t stand a chance of running smoothly. Atypical incidents do not have to be large disasters to cause you and your department headaches; they merely have to be different from the normal routine.

One of the best methods of being prepared for most out-of-the ordinary incidents that can befall your jurisdiction is to develop emergency operation plans for different types of nonroutine incidents that can be implemented quickly and easily. It doesn`t do much good to dust off a complicated, rarely used plan. For a department to be able to switch easily from routine to nonroutine operating modes, written plans must be available to all department personnel and, most importantly, the plans must be fairly easy to implement. These plans can range from simple checklists to an easy-to-implement operational structure with position descriptions that expand to meet the incident`s needs. Many hours of preparation and development are required to be able to make the switch from routine to nonroutine.


As an example of atypical incident planning, the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department has developed several relatively simple operational plans to cover unusual emergency situations that have the potential to occur during the year. The Fairfax County government has designated a number of county agencies as “lead” agencies on specific emergencies. In addition to fires, hazardous materials emergencies, and mass-casualty transportation accidents, the Fire and Rescue Department is the lead agency for preparing for the effects that hurricanes and high water, tornadoes, earthquakes, and blizzards/heavy snow conditions could have on Fairfax County.

To ensure that our department is prepared for the above emergencies, and to comply with the county`s responsibilities, the department has developed four specific emergency operation plans for these threats. All four plans are written in basically the same format, albeit two of the threats allow for some advance notice, whereas tornadoes and earthquakes are sudden incidents that give little or no warning. All the plans are divided into phases, to allow for the gradual buildup of resources and preparation by the department. The Hurricane/High Water Plan, on page 146, is presented for your information.

Phase I consists of making preparations, when notice allows, for increased staffing levels; inventory of four-wheel drive vehicles; station preparations for inclement weather; inventory of extra equipment such as chain saws, portable radio batteries, snow chains, and so on; identifying the command staff; and, if needed, an incident command structure (ICS) with assignments that could be put in place to deal with the emergency.

Phase II consists of distributing extra resources and bringing the command staff together to begin implementing the full plan for the imminent emergency.

Phase III is the actual emergency period itself. It consists of maintaining sufficient resources to handle operations during this time period.

Phase IV is the recovery phase, which includes tracking and centralizing all costs, rehabilitating and accounting for all property used during the incident, personnel overtime, and any other expenses. Frequently, the state or federal government will reimburse local jurisdictions for expenses incurred in mitigating the effects of a disaster that strikes their area. An exact accounting of the costs of the incident is essential to gain this funding.

Obviously, during sudden-impact events, Phases I, II, and III occur almost simultaneously. If your department has done meaningful atypical incident training and has plans already in place, it will take much less time to get the command structure operational and the resources necessary to mitigate the incident.

The command structure and a knowledge of the command positions are key to successful operations in a disaster. Fairfax County`s plans call for filling the incident management positions of incident commander and the administrative, planning, operations, and logistics functions. These personnel must be comfortable with the duties and responsibilities of their positions. Therefore, it makes sense to staff these positions with personnel who have day-to-day experience with these duties.

Administrative personnel must know how to track costs, establish contracts, and interpret unusual personnel and payroll issues.

Logistics personnel must know where specialized resources are and how to obtain them. They must be aware of the department`s transportation resources and how to move supplies from warehouses to wherever they may be needed. They also must know how to repair small and large tools.

Obviously, operational personnel must have skill and experience in handling multiple resources in complex incidents. Although they may never have handled the exact incident with which they are being faced, they should have experience in large-scale incident management. Good support personnel form the backbone of the incident`s operation, and they must be in place for a successful conclusion of the incident.

Although Fairfax County fills each necessary position with a qualified person, we also have developed a short position description for each function (see “Function Descriptions” on page 144 and above). These position descriptions serve as quick reminders of some of the most important responsibilities that must be carried out. Even with experience, it never hurts to have quick reminders in the heat of battle to ensure that the most important things get done.


A critical part of developing a needs assessment is having good damage assessment information. The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department has adopted the “windshield survey” concept. Windshield surveys are used in California for earthquakes and other large-scale events. Each fire company drives a predetermined route of travel in its first-due area to assess high-occupancy structures; major fire incidents; potential hazardous materials incidents; and important components of the county`s infrastructure, including the status of major transportation routes. The shift`s deputy chief would make the decision to have the Public Safety Communications Center (PSCC) dispatch fire companies to perform these surveys if a sudden, widespread disaster were to hit Fairfax County. Under these guidelines, each fire company surveys its first-due area and reports its findings to its battalion chief. Each battalion chief then communicates the findings to a division level. After gathering the information, the battalion chiefs decide where to commit their battalions` resources. The division levels pass the damage assessments and resource needs to the operations section who, in turn, communicates them to the IC.

At the division level, resources are then allocated across battalion lines, depending on the overall scope of the incident and the highest-priority needs. The IC requests resources and informs high-ranking fire department representatives at the Emergency Operations Center, the location at which all involved county agencies come together to manage and mitigate the incident under the direction of the lead agency and, ultimately, under the authority of the county executive.

One of the most controversial aspects of developing and issuing emergency plans, especially in our area, is triaging a disaster incident before committing resources to specific locations. For us, the difficult part of the windshield survey is that our firefighters are not accustomed to passing by people in need, which goes against the nature of their training and the operations they perform 99 percent of the time. Indeed, it would be a rare event in Fairfax County if this were to occur. However, the windshield survey is one of the most important aspects of managing a large-scale disaster.

A needs assessment cannot be developed without a damage assessment, and far too many fire departments have not thought about how they would assess the damage in their jurisdictions. I would not want to wait for or rely on another agency or group to make a damage assessment; interests critical to the fire department may not be addressed. Fire department officials are the most logical and best qualified personnel to perform an accurate damage assessment. Whether your area is subject to earthquakes or not, I encourage all departments to develop the capacity to make a quick initial assessment of their jurisdiction and the ability to report on the status of their jurisdiction to local government officials. Since local government officials have to make serious decisions on a course of action, it is essential that they have quick and accurate information relative to the extent and type of damage.

The unique aspect of Fairfax County`s disaster plans is that they are incident-based. Our plans directly reflect this region`s potentials for disaster. Every fire department should develop a list of the events that would be most likely to cause an out-of-the-ordinary incident or disaster in its region and then devise specific plans for dealing with each. Every fire department needs to be prepared for many types of disasters and emergency situations. Most fire departments spend time preparing for the “big one” and not enough time preparing for the smaller or the weather-related incidents. These are the incidents that are most likely to occur and can paralyze your operations if you do not make adjustments. It may take many hours to develop such plans, but there is no substitute for a good plan of action when disaster strikes. Remember: If you don`t manage the disaster, the disaster will manage you! n


Disaster Operations Center Representative

Primary Responsibility: A high-level person to represent the Fire and Rescue Department at the Disaster Operations Center (DOC).

Primary Location: DOC.

Primary Duties:

Receive a briefing from the DOC staff.

Ensure that the DOC is organized and staffed with representatives from all agencies that are necessary to mitigate the incident.

As the lead agency, oversee the DOC`s response at the county, state, and federal levels.

Maintain open lines of communication with the Fire and Rescue Department`s incident commander.

Request resources/services from other county, state, or federal sources when they are not available through the Fire and Rescue Department.

Liaison with the county executive on the status of the disaster response.

Forward an incident after-action report to the county executive with recommendations for follow-up actions.

Maintain status of the remainder of county activity as it relates to the immediate disaster.

Incident Commander

Position Responsibility: Establishment of goals for the overall incident management and ensure that strategies are carried out by supporting positions.

Primary Location: Fire and Rescue Command Post.

Primary Duties:

Assess incident conditions and develop incident action plan.

Brief personnel on the incident.

Activate elements of the incident management system.

Authorize implementation of the incident action plan.

Determine information needs, and brief the public information officer.

Coordinate staff activity.

Manage incident operations.

Authorize the release of information to the news media.

Liaison Officer

Position Responsibility: Contact, communicate, and coordinate with assisting and cooperating agencies and other jurisdictions.

Primary Location: DOC.

Primary Duties:

Obtain a briefing from the incident commander (IC).

Identify assisting agencies/jurisdictions that might be involved, and establish communications.

Provide point-of-contact for assisting agencies/jurisdictions.

Attempt to integrate assisting agencies/jurisdictions into operations where possible.

Respond to requests from agencies/jurisdictions outside of Fire and Rescue Department.

Monitor emergency situation and involvement of each agency/jurisdiction.

Maintain a log of significant events and section staffing.

Conduct an incident after-action critique, and forward the input to the Planning Section for a formal report and plan revision.

Administration Section

Primary Responsibility: Manage and coordinate financial, administrative, and cost data for the incident.

Primary Location: Command Post.

Primary Duties:

Obtain a briefing from the IC.

Organize the section into appropriate functional units–purchasing, time recording, and legal.

Attend planning meetings to gather information and provide financial, cost, and administrative analyses.

Facilitate emergency purchases.

With the legal unit, draft contracts and agreements with private vendors and agencies as necessary.

Obtain and record all cost data, and prepare incident cost summaries as necessary.

Track personnel injuries and illnesses.

Track personnel salary costs, and ensure correct overtime records are maintained with appropriate overtime codes.

Maintain a log of significant events and section staffing.

Conduct an incident after-action critique, and forward the input to the Planning Section for a formal report and plan revision.

Planning Section

Position Responsibility: Collect, evaluate, and disseminate information about the incident situation and status of resources. Provide up-do-date situation reports. Prepare an Incident Action Plan (IAP) and manage the Planning Section units.

Primary Location: Command Post.

Primary Duties:

Obtain a briefing from the IC.

Organize the section into appropriate functional units–situation, resource, documentation, and demobilization.

Screen incoming damage and casualty reports, and direct pertinent data to the appropriate location.

Continually gather complete intelligence reports regarding the incident and status of resources.

Evaluate preliminary disaster information. Determine the extent of damage, and estimate the amount of resources required to support emergency operations.

Schedule and facilitate a planning meeting with the command staff.

Maintain current status of all emergency response resources.

Compile and display incident and resource status summary information.

Prepare and distribute the IAP for 12-hour operational periods.

Assemble information on alternative strategies, and make recommendations to the IC.

Prepare and distribute the demobilization plans.

Maintain a unit log of significant events and section staffing.

Conduct an incident after-action critique.

Collect all after-action information from other sections, and prepare a final report.

Operations Section

Position Responsibility: Management and coordination of all incident operations in conjunction with direction from the IC. Manage the Operations Section units.

Primary location: PSCC (public service communications center) or incident location based on the discretion of the incident commander.

Primary Duties:

Receive briefing from IC.

Organize the section into functional units–EMS coordinator, volunteer resource coordinator, hospital coordinator, and civilian volunteer coordinator.

Activate and brief the Operations Section division personnel and others reporting to Operations.

Participate in the preparation of the IAP by providing input from the Operations Section staff.

Execute the IAP.

Provide updates and regular briefings to the Operations Section staff.

Monitor emergency activity and resource levels. Request additional resources and services through the DOC when they cannot be obtained from Fire and Rescue assets.

Deploy resources in the most practical and efficient manner.

Provide regular updates to the IC.

Ensure the safety of all personnel.

Maintain a log with the times of all significant events, command staffing, and injuries.

Ensure that the command staff has adequate relief.

Provide input into the demobilization plan.

Forward all logs, records, and pertinent documentation to the Planning Section for incident documentation.

Conduct an incident after-action critique, and forward the input to the Planning Section for a formal report and plan revision.

Logistics Section

Position Responsibility: Manage the resources that provide personnel, equipment, facilities, services, transportation, and materials supporting the incident activities.

Primary Location: Command Post.

Primary Duties:

Obtain a briefing from the IC.

Organize the section into appropriate functional units–apparatus, warehouse, communications, transportation, materials, and a civilian volunteer coordinator.

Determine the needs of the incident, using situation reports.

Provide input into the IAP.

Maintain the current status of service and support capabilities.

Develop resource lists from public and private sectors.

Maintain current and future support requirements based on the planning document.

Maintain a section log of significant events, section staffing, and contracts opened.

Conduct an incident after-action critique, and forward the input to the Planning Section for a formal report and plan revision.


Hurricanes or large weather systems can cause both flash floods and slow-rise flooding. A hurricane begins as a tropical depression when moist air from the ocean interacts with cooler upper winds. A large-scale, counterclockwise, circulating wind pattern develops, which, under the right conditions, becomes organized and increases in intensity. The storm is known as a hurricane when wind speeds reach 74 miles per hour.

A hurricane is typically 100 miles in diameter, although noncyclonic winds in excess of 40 miles per hour may cover an area 400 miles in diameter. Wind speeds in a hurricane may vary from 30 miles per hour on the outer bands to as much as 200 miles per hour near the center. At the very center is a tranquil area, known as the eye, in which wind speeds may decrease to 15 miles per hour. Once the eye passes over a geographical area, the wind speeds increase rapidly from the opposite direction as the other side of the rotating storm passes over. Hurricanes move laterally at a rate of 20 to 60 miles per hour. They dissipate on reaching land or colder waters because they lose access to the warm moist air that powers them. The average hurricane lasts from eight to 12 days, although high winds and extensive flooding might continue for another week or more.

The hurricane season for the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico peaks July through August and then for a period beginning in mid-September.


Hurricanes generally cause the following kinds of damage:

Flooding of tidal areas.

Destruction of structures.

Destruction of radio, telephone, and microwave equipment.

Destruction of electric distribution equipment.

Blocked highways and roads.



Phase I (up to and including Watch Status issued in County Alert Phase)

Action Responsible

1. Notify all personnel of Phase I Emergency

activation. Services/PSCC

(Public Safety Communications Center)

2. Establish Fire and Rescue Command at Fire Chief

Emergency Services. Appoint an overall

incident commander (IC) to command

department operations.

3. Identify the department liaison to the Fire Chief

Disaster Operation Center (DOC).

4. Assign department personnel to fill the IC

following sectors in the Fire and Rescue Command (as needed):

a. Operations

b. Administration

c. Planning

d. Logistics

e. Liaison

f. Communications

g. EMS control

h. Apparatus

i. PIO

j. Purchasing

k. Fire department volunteer resource officer

l. Area hospital coordinator

m. Civilian volunteer coordinator

5. Develop an Incident Action Plan (IAP) Planning

for each 12-hour period until stand-down.

6. Preplan deputy chief or lead battalion Operations

chiefs as division commanders. Command

posts to be at divisional headquarters.

7. Subdivide divisions into sectors. They Operations

may be sectored along battalion lines.

8. Determine extra resources available for Logistics

each sector (four-wheel drive, boats, EMS

units, and so on).

9. Establish a list of available civilian Logistics

resources (four-wheel drive, etc.).

Forward to the Planning Section.

10. Establish a list of available volunteer Logistics

resources. Forward to the Planning Section.

11. Establish a list of Academy resources. Logistics

Forward to the Planning Section.

12. Review the Red/Blue staffing plan. Work Locations

(Two teams–Red and Blue–replace

the three shifts.)

13. Inventory resources at each work Work Locations

location. Forward a list of shortages to

the battalion chief.

14. Prepare all facilities for wind/rain/high Work Locations


15. Test all emergency generators. Work Locations

16. Inventory available spare portable Communications

radios and batteries.

17. Repair all apparatus and boats, Logistics

and return for field use. Include

four-wheel-drive units. Forward inventory

to the Planning Section.

18. Liaison with HAM radio operators to Communications

assist with communications.

19. Preplan extra staffing for the Apparatus

Fire Department Apparatus Shop.

20. Place all canteen units on standby. Logistics

21. Develop a staffing plan for volunteer Planning


Other Considerations for Phase I

During periods when Phase I is in effect, the following positions should be assigned an aide (uniformed or nonuniformed) to assist with the duties of the position: fire chief, Operations Section, Planning Section, Logistics Section, Administration Section, divisional commanders, and battalion chiefs (uniformed person).

PHASE II (Warning Status Issued or County Warning Phase)

Action Responsible

1. Contact the county executive to Fire Chief

recommend activation of the county`s

Disaster Plan.

2. Initiate full incident command. IC

3. Issue Phase II warning. IC/PSCC

4. Initiate a Red/Blue staffing plan IC

for emergency services personnel.

Other divisions and civilian/clerical

personnel to be scheduled by appropriate

deputy chief to optimize staffing.

5. Develop a timetable for Phases II Planning

and III buildup based on weather forecast.

6. Stockpile food, water, and ice. Work Locations

7. Distribute all extra chain saws, portable Logistics

generators, and other rescue equipment

from the warehouse.

8. Distribute spare portable radios and Communications

batteries for field and command post use.

9. Redistribute boats, 4 2 4 vehicles, Operations

and Academy resources where best suited.

10. Assign two battalion chiefs to each sector. Operations

11. Assign volunteer staffing based on the plan. Operations

12. Provide staffing at the Apparatus Shop. Logistics

13. Relocate companies if necessary. Division

Secure empty stations.

14. Fuel all apparatus and equipment. Work Locations

15. Send a representative to the DOC Fire Chief

(when activated).

16. Staff all four-wheel-drive units, boats, Operations

reserve units, and light units with

supplemental personnel as necessary.

17. Preposition all canteen units. Operations

18. Assign units into rescue teams consisting Divisions

of an engine, truck, or squad, one

four-wheel-drive vehicle, and one

ALS (advanced life support) or BLS

(basic life support) unit.

19. Assign evacuation teams consisting Divisions

of one fire and one police person and a

four-wheel-drive vehicle.

20. Assign different radio frequencies Communications

to divisions and sectors.

21. Allow department personnel time Work Locations

to ensure family safety.

22. Liaison with area hospitals. EMS Section

23. Establish a contract with a local food Staff Services

distributor for procurement of food, ice,

and so on, for after the storm.

24. Predetermine evacuation routes, Sector

shelters, and transportation modes Commanders

for each sector.

25. Liaison with Public Works for a Liaison

resource list of heavy equipment for

debris removal after the storm.

26. Develop a second swiftwater rescue operations

team for the lower part of the county.

27. Review Phase III with the command staff. IC

28. Assign an Incident Job Number for docu- Staff Services

mentation purposes and send to all personnel.

Other Considerations for Phase II

1. During the period when Phase II or greater is in effect, consideration should be given to using a shift or station captain in a facility manager position at each fire station. This individual will be responsible for all needs of the station including accounting for all personnel and equipment that move in and out of the station. This position will also maintain a chronological documentation of all activities affecting the station so that it might be correlated with other documentation at a later time. This person would not leave the station or respond to incidents but will be responsible for managing the station activities for the duration of the emergency period.

2. During periods of Phase II or greater, there will be increased activity and responsibility placed on the uniformed fire officer at the PSCC. Because of this responsibility, a battalion chief or above should be placed at the PSCC to oversee activity that impacts fire and EMS resources. This person should be in addition to the normal UFOD and should have an aide, if possible, to document activities.

PHASE III (Three Hours Prior to Arrival of Storm)

Action Responsible Party

1. Issue Phase III notification. IC/PSCC

2. Activate full incident command. IC

Put all command personnel in place.

3. Review preparations to date and IC

future plans with command personnel.

4. Deploy all rescue and evacuation Operations

teams to assigned areas.

5. Fire and Rescue Command is to IC

provide regular updates to the DOC.

PHASE IV (Strike Period or County Response Phase)

1. Issue Phase IV notification. IC/PSCC

2. Respond to incidents as dispatched Divisions

and as allowed by weather conditions.

3. Forward situation/activity reports Operations

from battalions through divisions to

the Operations Section.

4. Divisions are to monitor resources Divisions/ and request assistance when Operations

necessary from the Operations Section.

5. Operations Section is to coordinate Operations/IC

with the IC to obtain the necessary

resources/services from outside

the department through the DOC.

6. All fire department personnel are to Work Locations

report hazardous situations.

7. Evacuate personnel in extreme danger. Work Locations

8. Monitor water supply resources Work Locations

(hydrant pressure).

9. Monitor the wind speed and weather IC

conditions for their effect on operations.

10. If flood water is used for fire Work Locations

protection, it must be checked for

contamination from flammable liquids,

and so on.

Other Considerations for Strike Period

1. Units may continue to operate when wind speeds are below 60 miles per hour (mph); however, unit officers should use discretion and extreme caution when responding and operating in high-wind conditions. Command officers may choose to cease operations if appropriate. When this decision is made, it must be relayed to the Operations Section through the battalion and division sectors. When wind speeds are below 60 mph sustained, the PSCC will continue to dispatch requests for assistance. When winds reach 60 mph sustained and with concurrence of the incident commander, the PSCC will activate the “ALL STATION TONE,” announce a NO RESPONSE period, and begin to log and prioritize all further requests for assistance until normal operations are resumed. Division chiefs, at their discretion, have the authority to continue operations past the NO RESPONSE order. When wind speeds have dropped below the 50 mph level, operations will activate the “ALL STATION TONE” and issue an “all clear” for normal operations to resume. The PSCC will resume normal dispatch beginning with the highest priority requests.

2. At the discretion of the division chief, some calls for assistance or area reconnaissance may be made during the eye of the storm. However, when the wind speed again reaches 60 mph, all units should abide by item Number 1 above.

3. At the discretion of the local IC, areas of extreme damage may be isolated and incidents in that area forwarded by PSCC directly to the IC.

Phase V (Recovery Period)

Action Responsible Party

1. Issue Phase V notification. IC/PSCC

2. Have personnel check on families. Work Locations

3. Assist in clearing roads. Work Locations

4. Search for victims. Work Locations

5. Reopen closed stations. IC

6. Assist returning evacuees. Work Locations

7. Take inventory. Work Locations

8. Report losses. Work Locations

9. Document all purchases. Work Locations/ Staff Services

10. Terminate divisions and sector operations. IC

11. Return to normal dispatching procedures. PSCC

12. Terminate command post operations. IC

13. Record all storm costs for possible Staff Services


14. Develop an after-action report, IC

and revise the hurricane plan as necessary.

Other considerations for Recovery Period

1. All costs associated with the storm will be tracked by the Administration Section and forwarded to the Staff Services Division within 24 hours after the storm so that they can be compiled into a master accounting for possible reimbursement.

Revised 1/96

Click here to enlarge image

n JAMES M. STRICKLAND, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, recently retired as deputy chief from the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department. He currently is a consultant for the National Association for Search and Rescue, Chantilly, Virginia.

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