One year later: Reflections on Joplin

Prepare for the incident when you are the victim

By Chief Rob Wylie

It's hard to believe that a year has passed since the Joplin tornadoes devastated the landscape in southwestern Missouri. As I think back to what was going through my mind not only that night, but in the time since, the one thing that keeps coming back is are we prepared to handle the incident when we become the victims?

We spend countless hours training, preparing and planning to handle other people's emergencies, but are we prepared when we become the victim? Do we have a continuity of operations plan in place that has been exercised and tested?

Thankfully, very few of us had to face this in our careers. But it's an example of how at any time and any place our ability to respond can be compromised or completely eliminated.

I think the greatest lesson I've learned with regard to our ability to bounce back after a natural disaster has to do with who we are going to call to help us. We all have mutual-aid agreements with neighbors that allow us to draw resources from close by in a reasonable amount of time. That's the way most of our plans are structured.

Unavailable resources
But what if those resources are damaged, busy or unable to attend to our needs? Now we have to think more regionally, more on statewide level. We have to think on the out-of-state level. How do we get resources from out of our immediate area in, and do we have mutual aid contracts that will accommodate their response?

For example what would it take for me to have a fire company from Illinois come into Missouri and operated my fire district? Would they have medical licenses to provide aid to my residents? Would they have liability coverage for operating in my district on my behalf? How would they be reimbursed for their people's time and for hard assets such as fuel, food and equipment that was damaged?

All these things have to be considered before the event takes place if there's going to be a smooth transition and no break in service to the community.

Close to home
The other lesson I've taken from Joplin is the impact on our personnel. If an event like a tornado has destroyed your fire department and your ability to respond, chances are it's also destroyed some of your personnel's homes.

Will your people be at the top of their game if they're wondering about the safety of their families and what's happened to their homes?

We talked about this impact on personnel and their personal lives during the flu epidemic scares last year when we fully expected the flu to hit hard and take out a third of our personnel. We expected that they would not show up for work either because they were sick or because family members were sick.

How do we plan for that? It's kind of the same concept; if folks are worried about what's going on at home, they might not be paying attention what's going on at work.

In an effort to combat this we've thought about things like identifying where families live, and if they live outside the fire district, making sure that the local fire jurisdiction has that information. Maybe just a note to that chief saying, "Hey, I've got one of my firefighter's families living in your fire district. In the event of a natural emergency will you check on them for us and get back to us so that we know that they're safe?”

Now our firefighters can go about their jobs with some peace of mind, knowing their families are in good shape. I would also suggest that you collect the names from other chiefs in your area that have personnel the living your fire just and you can provide the same service for them. Having that peace of mind would be invaluable during such time of emergency.

Shelter from the storm
The other issue we considered is if families that live within our fire district are displaced and have nowhere to stay. Can we shelter them at the fire stations? Can we feed them? Can we house their pets?

The answer that we came up with was "yes" in a limited form or fashion. Again, if you take care of your crew's families, your people will be much more effective in dealing with what they need to deal with.

So, the bottom line is you need to consider yourself as a victim. You need to consider how you're going to continue your operations; you need to consider how you're going to take care of your families and your firefighters.

The other thing not to forget is the premise that was put to us by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You should have plans in place so that you can stand alone, unassisted, for up to 72 hours. That includes everything from food to fuel to shelter to whatever you need to keep them in operation for 72 hours.

Now's the time to make those plans, and do not forget to include your people in the planning process.

It said that no plan survives the first encounter with the enemy, so once a disaster starts, chaos will ensue. It's the planning process that will provide benefits long into the emergency.

The simple act of having some face-to-face time with the people you may be working with down the road gets everybody past the tail-sniffing phase and allows them to get right to work. The plan is important, but the planning process is the thing.


About the author: Chief Robert Wylie has more than 20 years in the fire service and currently serves as fire chief of the Cottleville Fire District in St. Charles County, Mo. He is a tactical medic with the St. Charles County Regional SWAT Team in St. Charles County, and a member of the State Fire Safety Advisory Board as well as chairman of the St. Louis Regional Response System executive board. Chief Wylie also hosts FireRescue1's "Fireground" and "Fireground Flash Tips" segments. Chief Wylie was the director of the St. Charles/Warren County Hazardous Materials/Homeland Security Response Team for 10 years. He has planned, directed and participated in National Security events such as Pope John Paul II's visit, presidential visits, the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials and three Major League Baseball World Series.

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