In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita there has been a deluge of directives for various agencies to formulate and have in place "a plan." The media has made much of what they perceive as a lack of "a plan" and they imply that given enough "plans", the problems seen in New Orleans and the rest of the gulf coast particularly after hurricane Katrina would have been avoided.
This is a false and somewhat dangerous assumption A "plan" is nothing more than a list of things to be done under certain circumstances and a roster of those responsible for doing them or at least seeing that they get done. No "plan", in and of itself, ever accomplished anything. It merely enables those responsible for the conduct of an operation to get the job done in an orderly and organized manner and in the most efficient and timely way possible.
Plans must, to be sure, be prepared in advance. Therefore, every possible contingency cannot be foreseen. Because of this limitation, there must be a large degree of flexibility included in the original document and those responsible for its implementation need to have freedom to be flexible and to adapt to whatever happens.
We have all heard the statement "it went like a textbook case". In reality the only place that one encounters a "textbook case" is, where else, in a text book. As any one who has worked in the field of emergency response knows, no two incidents are ever alike. Those cited in textbooks are only presented as examples of an incident that was handled extremely well or as a "horrible example' of one that was not handled well and consequently became a disaster.
Obviously, incidents cannot be rehearsed but plans can be subjected to simulations in order to work the "bugs" out. As an example, one simulation in which the author participated, the plan called for fire apparatus responding in answer to a request for mutual aid to travel over a rather long distance and on arrival these vehicles were immediately put into service. About three hours into the event the officer in charge of these vehicles reported that his tanks were getting low and he would soon need to have his fuel replenished. The "plan" called for the local fuel distributor to send a truck to fill the fuel tanks on the engines. At this point a volunteer firefighter who happened to work for the fuel distributor spoke up and reminded the group that earlier in the simulation the power went out of service and that without power for the transfer pumps he could not get fuel out of his storage tanks and into his delivery truck. Nobody but someone "on the inside" who was very familiar with the operation of the fuel storage facility would be likely to pick up on this problem but in the event of an actual incident it could become a major problem indeed. As it was, a few alterations to the plumbing, costing less than one hundred dollars, made it possible to load a delivery truck using the pump on the vehicle without the need for electric power.
This is a good example of why we run simulations and it also points up the need to include as wide a spectrum of the community as possible in the exercise. In this case no one other than the plant operator who was a long-time employee and very familiar with the actual set up of his facility would have known that electric power was essential to fuel transfer at this particular installation. More to the point, he was the one who knew how to "wire around the meter" and come up with a way to circumvent the problem.
In the aftermath of 9 -11 there was great concern in many quarters about the vulnerability of the community water supply. Nearly all municipal water supplies are dependent on commercial electric power to operate pumps and purification equipment. In the event that the water supply is compromised, either by terrorist activities or by the interruption of electric power is there an available back-up? Do we have a few wells that can be powered by Diesel engines? Alternatively, could we not tap into private wells which have been pretested and approved as a source of potable water? After all they all pump from the same aquifers.
Then comes the problem of how to get the water from the private well, or other alternative source, to the point of need. Again the means is simple; round up all the bulk milk trucks, add five gallons of bleach or a couple of handfuls of swimming pool chlorine tablets to purify the water and off we go. Simple isn't it? Yes, but prior planning must be done; the owners of the milk trucks must buy into the plan and be willing to participate by diverting their equipment in the event of an emergency. They must be able to get drivers and they must be told how to get to the water-point.
The list goes on and, in the vast majority of cases the solution is not "rocket science". What is important is that these things must be recognized and the appropriate "fix" installed before the need arises. If you are going to use the local high school gym as a shelter, the time to negotiate how this is to be accomplished is definitely not as the bus-loads of evacuees are rolling in the front gate.
Emergency preparedness is a concern of the entire community and the link between the community in general and the emergency response agencies is, or should be, the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).
This group should include representatives from any part of the community that may be asked to contribute to the mitigation effort in the event of an emergency. This is where one will find the people who know what fittings are on a milk tank, who in the community has a track-mounted front end loader and so on. They will also know who to contact in time of need. The LEPC is a resource and it should be utilized but it is not the agency responsible for the response to an incident.
Once a plan has been created it should be tested, repeatedly. This is not something that can be done on a perfunctory basis though, unfortunately, it all to often is. We cannot call a staff meeting and say "we have a tanker rolled over on the highway three miles south of town, what are we going to do about it? A simulation needs to be carefully planned and should include anything and everything that could possibly occur in the event that the incident actually happened.
A very common situation makes a good example, a tanker has overturned. It was loaded with gasoline, or was it carrying diesel or heating oil? This makes a big difference to those who are going to respond. If it was gasoline, did the load catch fire? Was there a chance that it could get into the storm sewer system? Could the fire, if there was one, engulf that small electrical substation on the roadside? What about the crowd that will soon be coming out of the football stadium a mile down the road? What if the only apparatus capable of pumping foam is "out of service" for repairs? All of these types of things should be thrown into the simulation because when we are "playing for real" they will be there. "Murphy's Law" has not been repealed.
One of the biggest problems with regard to emergency response planning is getting the community to "take it seriously". This is particularly true in communities which have, in the past been spared the impact of natural or man made disasters. Because of the prevalent "it won't happen here" attitude, emergency preparedness is all too often a low priority item. Plans are written to meet some governmental requirement and then they are put on the shelf until the next grant application comes down the pike.
Plans are great documents, but they are just documents. The employee who drives the fuel truck for the road department needs to know and accept that he is part of the emergency response plan and, if "the balloon goes up" he will actually have to climb out of bed at 3:00 a.m. and deliver fuel to the fire engines and other emergency response equipment. He needs to understand that, at that moment, he is the most important man in town.
All agencies that have a part in the overall plan must understand their role and must "buy into" the program and be prepared to actually do what is required without undue "red tape" and bureaucratic impediment. If school busses are needed to transport evacuees, then do whatever it takes to get the busses rolling now. We can sort out the paperwork later.
If we plan to use the gym of the local High School as a shelter we don't have time to deal with a frustrated basketball coach who is concerned that we will scratch his precious playing floor. We can refinish it later if necessary.
Who has the keys to the building? In the case of school buildings this can be a problem during the summer or at other times when school is not in session. In one instance known to the author a winter storm closed an interstate highway during the Christmas recess. The "plan" called for stranded travelers to be taken to the local High School gym for shelter. Unfortunately it took over four hours to find the keys to the place. The plan was great but it takes more than a well written document to actually make a response become a reality.
Who is the designated "point of contact" for the agency? If an incident occurs and we need to alter bus routes to avoid a dangerous area, who has the authority to order the change? Most importantly, where is this point of contact? It is most disconcerting to call an agency administrator to inform them about an emergency only to be told by a secretary "He /She is out of the building"; or worse yet, "is in a meeting". These people need to understand what is meant by the term "Emergency".
An emergency response plan is a constantly changing document. Every time there is a change in the roster of employees there is a change in the emergency response plan yet all to often such plans will be found to have out-of-date telephone numbers and to list employees in key positions who have not worked for the agency for years and may even be deceased. Plans must relate to reality. It is not unreasonable to expect Emergency Management personnel to update and correct emergency response plans at least once each quarter. Such an update should include a reminder to all of the key administrators and managers. This could simply be a memo saying "Dear _____ , your department is responsible for supplying emergency generators in the event of a tornado. According to our records you have ten of these items in your inventory, How many of these are now on hand? How many of them are actually functional? Are there any repairs or additional supplies that these items require?" Response should be required within a reasonable time period, say two days.
A notice of this type will serve to determine whether or not the required equipment is actually on site and in service and to highlight the need for repairs and/or periodic maintenance. It will also remind the recipient of the note that he/she is an essential part of the response effort and in case of need he will be expected to fulfill his role in the response effort.
Only by creating a plan that is realistic and up to date and then by testing it in as realistic a manner as possible can we be certain that in time of need the response will actually happen.
People are the key element here. One can have the most brilliant plan in the world and the greatest array of "cast iron" since WWII but without dedicated, trained and empowered people willing to make the plan work there will be no response and the cast iron will simply stay in the parking lot waiting to be converted into junk. o