Lessons Learned About Emergency Planning

Recently I participated in a workshop that focused on emergency planning. At first, I felt like an agnostic abducted into a seminary. Emergency planning was the epitome of an oxymoron! Fortunately, the energy and dedication displayed by the facilitators and teachers was at once invasive and contagious. When I boarded the bus that took us back to the airport, I was convinced that there might actually be some substance to this emergency planning bit. It was only mildly disconcerting to think about implementing some of the planning process that I had learned that week.

As usual, my“regular” job had enough distractions for me to push this newly found priority into the background; that is, until Katrina and Rita. Watching live coverage on television rapidly resurrected those June sessions. Moreover, since I was now a certified expert in the field, I could not resist playing Monday morning quarterback as I waited for events and processes to unfold.

Since then, as a haphazard and pathetic return to normalcy struggles into the lives of many of the individuals impacted by these events, I have tried to juxtapose the theory that I had learned with the reality of what happened in the Gulf Coast region. As I went through this exercise, I had to remember that criticizing agencies and individuals for what did or did not happen in New Orleans, in Beaumont and other places less publicized in the news would be too easy. I was not there and, therefore, was not privy to the facts. Yet, I knew that I could still extract wisdom from others’ painful lessons. Here then, is some of that wisdom.

• Never forget about less-mobile individuals. On our campus, that refers to the students living in the residence halls who do not have cars. It refers to the 8,000 individuals per day who use mass transportation to commute to and from the campus. We need to know who they are, how we are going to move them and to what destination.

• Avoid using up all responders on the first day. Even though the tendency will be to immediately throw all resources at an event, we must recognize that the event may take numerous days to play itself out. Additionally, experience has shown that a disappointing number of responders may disappear who were otherwise expected to be available, and volunteer responders showing up on site may have no idea what is going on. Without effective plans to help us guide their activities, volunteers may actually do more harm than good.

• We cannot prepare for the worst magnitude of all types of disasters. Thus, we need to be realistic. Planning for an unlikely event will be consuming enough without getting hung up on the highly unlikely. Let’s spend time and resources planning for those events that pose the highest threat and for which we can prepare the most effectively.

• Inter-local agreements are extremely important. Communities that plan to share resources may deal more effectively with disasters. However, as we saw with the events unfolding in the New Orleans area, sometimes the scale of an event can be overwhelming to all parties who sign an agreement. I believe that we must plan as if we must be self-sustaining.

• We must identify in advance the resources that are going to be the most difficult to locate in our community. For instance, in the case of an earthquake or a terrorist event, we are going to need many truckloads of barricades and yellow“STAY OUT” tape. We will also need to provide some impressive staging areas.

• We must define a protocol that does not require emergency responders to tell Operations the type of equipment they think is needed to remedy a situation. We must teach responders to describe the situation they want to resolve, and then let the real experts decide the type of equipment that will do the job most effectively.

Finally, the best investment that we can make in disaster planning is to build “stuff” that can help us survive. Whether building a levy, a river wall or an earthquake-resistant building, the cost will be less in dollars and human life if we design, build or retrofit in anticipation of an event than if we wait until we have to recover from one.

Pete van der Have is the assistant vice president for Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at pvanderhave@campplan.utah.edu.

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