Thursday, November 30, 2006

Emergency Preparedness - Part Two

[Update: Fixed some formatting and spelling errors, and deleted a duplicate post}

In Part One, we examined a very good article by Dr. Eric Taylor and his take on the FEMA emergency preparedness manual. In Dr. Taylor's view, the manual falls short in many critical areas. In this part, we'll take a look at what other emergency response professional think of our state of preparedness.

James M. Shannon, president of the National Fire Protection Association, writing in the current issue of the NFPA Journal, has this to say about preparedness as it affects the fire service:

Let me be blunt. Most American communities were not prepared to cope with a homeland security event when 9/11/2001 occurred. Most are not prepared now. And most will not be prepared in the future at the pace we are moving.

Shannon is reporting on a recent study completed by NFPA for the U.S. Fire Administration, which is part of FEMA. Here are some of the points he makes: [All emphasis added]

For instance, there was some improvement in planning by fire departments to coordinate the use of outside personnel and equipment in a homeland security response for a wildfire or terrorist attack. But the study found that most departments still do not have written plans for these kinds of incidents.

There has been some progress made in providing SCBA [Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, or "Scott Packs"] and PASS [Personal Alert Safety System, which emits an ear-splitting tone of a firefighter does not move for a predetermined period of time - ie, if he's unconscious or trapped, - which assists other firefighters in finding their fallen comrade] devices. But even after all of the attention that has been paid to improving preparedness, 60 percent of departments do not have enough SCBAs and 48 percent do not have enough PASS devices to equip everyone on a shift.

The number of firefighters with insufficient training or certification has declined, but even for something as fundamental and near-universal as structural firefighting, more than half of departments still do not have all involved firefighters formally trained.

Overall, in area after area, the second needs assessment shows that there has been little or no progress, not because the grants program has been misdirected or ineffective but because the needs are so great relative to the size of the program.

How does this affect the preparedness efforts we as citizens must make? If the fire service -- for whatever reason -- is unable to respond in the event of a major emergency, we are on our own.

This is why it is so critical for all citizens to have at least a few fire extinguishers around the house, and the knowledge of how and when to use them... and more importantly, when not to use them and get the hell out instead. Your local fire department can supply a huge amount of useful information (and maybe even training) in home fire safety, as can NFPA and USFA. reporter Zack Phillips wrote about emergency preparedness exercises, and how they may tend to provide artifically rosy results. Beginning with FEMA's now-infamous "Hurricane Pam" exercise in 2004, Phillips examines the strong and weak points of drills and exercises and cites Michael J. Hopmeier, who:

...points to the example in September of joy-riding teenagers driving past the guard posts at the Miami military base that houses U.S. Central Command, and a retired police officer using fake identification who entered Homeland Security Department headquarters in June. "When it wasn't a test, when it wasn't the [inspector general] going through, when it wasn't an assessment; when it was a real-world event, it turned out the security failed," he says. [Emphasis added]

Phillips also notes how the costs associated with exercises have skyrocketed: TOPOFF1 ("Top Officials", the granddaddy of all exercise programs), in 2000, cost $3 million, 2005's TOPOFF3 cost $12 million.

Phillips goes on to point out the effects of pre-planning in an exercise: the advance notice to participants may result in overly-prepared responses, rather than the spur-of-the-moment actions that actually occur:

"If you know there's going to be a test of everything, then you've already bought the answer, or you've excluded a lot of the problems," says William Bicknell, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health and a former Massachusetts public health director.

Its similar to knowing there is going to be a fire drill at work at 9:30 AM on Thursday: you're going to keep your coat handy, you'll make sure you're not on the phone, and so on. Yet, in a real fire, smoke may obscure the path to an exit, especially if you're forced to use an exit other than your normal one. In some ways, a drill or other emergency exercise presents a "best-case" scenario, rather than the "worst-case" that always seems to develop in a legitimate emergency.

Phillips' conclusion appears to be that exercises do offer concrete opportunities for improvement, but there are some deficiencies that need to be rectified to achieve full value from the programs.

1 comment:

  1. All right, I am going to get off my ass and do what I have been threatening to do and write a comprehensive what you need to do to be prepared post. You know the basics, just like I do. You were a cop, I was a flight nurse. I'm going to handle the comprehensive "go to Costco and buy the following things" part and link to you for the stuff they crammed into my head at the counterterrorism training I went to in Alabama. (I can get my biohazard suit on and my respirator hooked up in 73 seconds. I don't smoke, and I bike dozens of miles a week. I can hold my breath a lot longer than 73 seconds.)

    No rest for the weary I guess...