On September 1, 2021, the International Public Safety Association sponsored a webinar titled “The Golden Hour of Disasters—Starting the Road to Recovery.” The subject matter was especially poignant, given the event’s scheduling just before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
The presenters were Greg Benson and Mike Fagel. Both men have extensive careers as public safety and disaster planning officers. They teach as adjuncts for several Chicago-area colleges. Fagel spent 100 days at Ground Zero assisting the recovery operation.
The central theme of the webinar centered on constructing a sound disaster plan for future use. This is no small chore. Disasters are invariably unexpected, although some communities can expect certain types of adverse events based on past experience and locality. Cities in the southeast United States can expect hurricanes; those in California can plan on an earthquake or three. The source of the disaster may be a secondary consideration with regard to planning for most eventualities.
For example, most disasters involve a disruption in public utilities. Electrical power, water and sewer service, and telephone service will be partially or entirely eliminated. Roadways may become impassable. Emergency vehicles may be wrecked or cut off from fuel supplies.
Disaster planning may ignore the human element with regard to public safety personnel. One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina is that there needs to be a plan in place to care for the families of first responders. When Katrina wiped out most of the infrastructure of New Orleans and surrounding communities, many public safety personnel ignored the recalls of their employer agencies until they knew their families were secure. No fire, police, or EMS chief should expect their officers to put the community’s welfare ahead of their families’.
First attempt in learning
The webinar presenters put considerable emphasis on “the golden hour of disasters.” This refers to the implementation of the disaster plan and determines whether the people who have to carry out the plan have confidence in its functionality.
Much of this confidence comes from training exercises before the plan is needed so that everyone will be familiar with their role in the execution of the plan. Training and simulating execution of the plan will also reveal flaws in the plan that may not be foreseen by the authors.
The presenters used an acronym that makes “fail” a little easier to swallow: First Attempt In Learning.
“We have to build confidence,” Fagel said. “And that means we’ve got to make mistakes in what we call ‘blue sky days’ before something ugly happens. And we’ve got to help people practice, prepare because if our planning isn’t done right, we won’t function well.”
Establishing priorities for service restoration doesn’t mean that one has to take priority over everything below it. A slide the presenters used had medical, fire suppression, life and property, search and rescue, and evacuation all as number one priorities. These are objectives that can be ongoing contemporaneously. The resources needed to re-establish one may not need to be shared with the others. If a resource is needed to restore more than one vital function, it may be possible to prep one site for that resource while it’s in full use at another.
It’s critical that planning for emergency operations be multi-disciplinary, and include subject matter experts for all the critical disciplines. The city or county information technology (IT) manager might not be someone you would be quick to name to an emergency planning committee, but consider how many of your information and communication resources are bound to IT.
The emergency plan itself, if there is a paper copy of it, may be outdated, or it might be under six feet of water. There is a PDF of it on your server, but how will you get to it when the power is out? Your IT manager will be able to answer those questions much more easily than anyone else on your staff.
Establishing safety protocols for everyone is another consideration. When fire, police and search and rescue personnel deployed onto what became known as “The Pile” of what remained of the World Trade Center, most of the safety considerations centered on falling or having material give way beneath a responder’s feet. Twenty years later, over 2,000 of those responders have died of cancer, likely brought on by inhaling toxic dust. Multi-disciplinary planning might have brought that number down.
Another element to include in a disaster plan is a provision for mental health services. Public safety has very slowly come around to appreciate that fostering good mental health is essential to keep people functioning at top efficiency and that everyone suffers from mental health issues at some point in their career. Having that mental health professional around when the trauma is happening can speed healing, or prevent a minor concern from becoming a major one.
Developing a disaster readiness plan isn’t something public safety leaders have to do from scratch. Benson and Fagel made sure everyone was familiar with the acronym THIRA: Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment. The FEMA website offers guides for identifying potential hazards and authoring a disaster plan to cope with them. There is no need to re-invent the wheel to come up with a workable plan.
Fagel emphasized the need to document everything you do, as well as everything that others do. The plan has to be executable in spite of key people being unavailable at the outset of the incident or a month later.
“Everything you do, you write it down. I had four or five steno books that I carried with me at Ground Zero and these books are things that I used every single day,” Fagel said. “And I wrote things down so that when I closed out my desk for that night or morning… the next person coming and could pick up my notebook and go, all right, I see September 23rd, these are the questions he had and Fagel can’t come back because he’s sick, ill, got hit by a bus, whatever…this is not about you. This is about our ability to recover.”
In an era where there are maybe too many information (or disinformation) sources, it’s critical that public information statements be made with one voice. Even when multiple public information officers are involved, they need to be putting out the same message. The National Incident Management System that all public safety officers are supposed to understand mandates a “Joint Information Center.” You don’t want a situation where the local university president is telling the students to come back to school when the town mayor is saying, “Stay home. We don’t have the infrastructure to support you.”
The presenters closed the webinar by showing a photo of a challenge coin they made up for people who worked with them at the sites of the Twin Towers, Pentagon and the Oklahoma City bombing. One of the acronyms on the coin is PET: Politics, Egos and Turf. These three considerations can derail your disaster plan. Always keep them in mind, and always do everything you can to keep them from interfering with your disaster mitigation effort.