Prioritizing disaster planning supports first responders

Understanding the impact of extreme weather on first responders can help departments better prepare for major incidents


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By Chief William Jenaway

What do floods, hurricanes and fires all have in common? It’s the first responders who show up when the community needs help. The problem: Extreme weather as a result of climate change is adding to the risks first responders face during their response efforts.

Extreme weather as a result of climate change is adding to the risks first responders face during their response efforts. (Photo/USDA)
Extreme weather as a result of climate change is adding to the risks first responders face during their response efforts. (Photo/USDA)

New challenges for first responders

At the time of VFIS’ founding 50 years ago, climate change wasn’t a top concern. However, it has since become an imperative topic of conversation. First responders are facing more severe storms, heavier rainfalls and an increase in fire severity and wildland fires. At the end of the day, these increased risks are requiring first responders to put their lives in more danger than ever before.

It’s time to address extreme weather and its impact on first responders.

Better protection and preparation

First responders are on the front lines, handling the devastation that comes along with extreme weather, as well as the other changes we’ve seen, like longer fire seasons or drier terrain. The small changes we’ve seen add up to create an even more challenging environment. When we fail to address these added risks, we’re failing to protect first responders. Yes, for first responders, there has to be a recognition and acceptance of these risks, but the added challenges of extreme weather are significant.

We know that first responders already face higher health and safety risks than the average civilian, so we need to do what we can now to prepare for the risks they face from extreme weather.

Addressing these risks starts with preparation. While there is only so much you can do in advance of an emergency, there are steps communities can take to help first responders before they respond to a disaster.

Emergency service organizations (ESOs) should implement a community relations team to focus on weather-related emergencies that plans and implements programs to help aid civilians in preparing. Sometimes regular maintenance can help significantly improve response efforts, especially when it comes to regularly property maintenance and evacuation efforts.

Psychological impact

Additionally, to address the risks faced by first responders, we also need to evaluate the psychological impact of climate change.

First responders are facing hard times. Funding issues, struggles with recruitment and retention and aging populations, combine with the added costs and pressure of natural disasters to create a difficult reality. The struggles first responders are juggling can result in greater stress, especially for under-staffed or under-funded departments. As ESOs fight for the properties, businesses and families in their community, they could be doing so knowing that their home could be damaged in the face of the same disaster their crew is fighting.

Prioritize disaster planning

In general, first responders face an increased risk for known health hazards as well as anticipated climate change-related safety risks. These risks include exposure to contaminants, mental stress, increased exposure to hazards and increased exposure to heat and cold. As such, departments need to be well-funded and well-staffed, and our communities need to prioritize disaster planning. Addressing extreme weather and its impact on first responders requires our complete focus on the risks they’re facing, so that they can continue to serve our communities and help save lives. 

About the author

Dr. William F. Jenaway, Ph.D., CSP, CFO, CTO, CFPS, CPP is executive vice president of VFIS, provider of insurance, education and consulting services for fire departments, ambulance and rescue squads and 911 centers in North America. He has over 40 years of experience in safety and risk management in the insurance industry, and is an adjunct professor in risk analysis in the Graduate School at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Jenaway was named Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year as chief of the King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Volunteer Fire Company, and is the author of several emergency service texts.

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