Thursday, December 24, 2015

How to start a disaster response

Last year I heard a series of presentations from some first responders on the April 17, 2013 West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The blast killed 11 firefighters at the scene and injured 200 of the 2,800 inhabitants of the town. The presenters, from the police, fire and emergency medical disciplines, assumed leadership positions when they arrived on scene and described the actions that they took at the first large disaster of their lives. The week of December 7-11 the American Red Cross assembled a team of 18 people in Denver, Colorado to draft a reference guide for local Red Cross employees and volunteers to use when they have to respond, as those men did in West, Texas, to the first large disaster of their lives.

When FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was a State Director in Florida I heard him define the difference between an emergency and a disaster. At most emergencies, like a house fire or an automobile accident, the first responders outnumber the survivors. When an event happens, and the survivors outnumber the responders, then you have a disaster. Across the nation the Red Cross responds to emergencies every day.  In 2015, Red Cross disaster workers responded to 176 large U.S. disasters – more than each of the past three years.

Not everyone with the responsibility to recognize and react to a growing disaster has the benefit of having done it before. The first responders in West, Texas didn’t, and many of the Red Cross employees and volunteers on the ground during those 176 disasters didn’t either.

I knew and had served on disasters with a good number of the Team that assembled in the Drury Hotel in Denver. Before we could start we had to define the problem that we were addressing, the solution to the problem and the intended audience for whatever document we ended up producing. As was to be expected from such a diverse and experienced group, we had significant disagreements. Fortunately, we were joined by some experienced facilitators who had ample experience corralling ornery and rambunctious groups like us.

This wall was used by the Team to determine the target audience for our Field Operations Guide.

This week in Denver was one of the highlights of my mass care career and I felt fortunate to have been in the room with such a knowledgeable and dedicated group of mass care professionals. In particular, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about how to establish and operate a Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation. The most rewarding part of the week was that I was able to use my hard earned knowledge and experience to contribute to the effort that we were all making.

After five long days, working in groups, we were able to assemble a rough draft of over 100 pages. The target audience for this Field Operations Guide is the Regional Disaster Officer and Disaster Program Manager at the front line of the Red Cross disaster response hierarchy. The Guide is a series of checklists and job aids by function: Job Director, Operations, Planning, Logistics, Finance and External Relations. It’s a good product and we were all pleased with the result.

The draft has now been turned over to the doctrine staff at Red Cross National Headquarters, who will use their superior command of the English language to transform our scribblings into readable prose, with all the periods and commas in the right place. Once they have finished their magic the draft will go out to a wider audience for comment. The intent is to get this product completed and out to the field by spring.

If that sounds ambitious, it is. But we think that we can get it done.

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