Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Who's in charge?

Key Point:  Expect confusion in emergencies, evacuate quickly, and be prepared.

We recently had an emergency here in Eagle Mountain, Utah. A fire raced across a mountain side with smoke pouring down into parts of the city that required evacuation. That is the short version.
Here is the rest of the story.... A brush fire started in an adjoining city (Saratoga Springs). Their fire dept responded. Then the fire burned onto BLM land. And the BLM responded. Then the fire crossed into Eagle Mountain City land and Eagle Mountain Fire Department responded. All the while Saratoga Springs Police department and later Eagle Mountain Sheriff's Dept became involved. Then County resources and later State resources and their incident command took over. The Red Cross came in and set up an evacuation center at a local high school. Then you have multiple news stations all trying to report information, updates and evacuation maps. So to recap...we have at least 8 agencies, each in charge at one time or another AND then you have the Red Cross who people default to for information. They may not be in charge, but they are looked to as having answers. Multiple news agencies all trying to report but getting their information from different sources. So....who's in charge? And as a citizen, how do we know? Then, the question is, what is the role of the city, once they have been replaced by a larger agency or authority? Do you evacuate because the Sherriff says to, but the City hasn't said anything? Then, each news agency seems to have different sources and then different maps for evacuation.

But if you want to know even more....

The HAM radio team had to jerry-rig their antenna in a tree because the city had not approved them to set up a permanent antenna for emergency communications (see the city planners office for validation). The HAM radio team had to borrow equipment from volunteers (power source) because equipment had not been tested. The city equipment did not work and needed some major tweaking (that's what the HAM volunteers told me, I don't know the extent that entailed). Then the city had the city department heads in a building, 10 miles away (City Center offices) with the main Eagle Mountain fire fighting operations in another building (10 miles away-The Ranches Fire Station #2) with no way to communicate (there is a mountain on fire that separated them and HAM radio cannot reach the other side of the mountain and phone lines were jammed) AND the Mayor was at the 3rd location - a main Incident Command operations center for all the fire fighting agencies in another city (Saratoga Springs High School). The Eagle Mountain City did not have a dedicated Emergency Preparedness city official; therefore, no one owned that responsibility. City official’s day-to-day jobs were different than for an emergency and were not clearly defined. Now remember, this real emergency happened in July 2012, only 3 months after the Great Shakeout exercise where the city officials were supposed to have practiced for a real emergency.

Then a city official sent out a call for food and volunteers that were needed right away and tons of people and resources started pouring in; too much, too many and not always the right stuff. (Thank you Wal-Mart in Saratoga Springs and Chevron in Eagle Mountain, I heard they were incredible and donated supplies immediately and on the spot. I will make sure I do business with them for a long time). Then when FEMA or the State (not sure which) came into the picture, they had food catered for the fire department crews so all the work done by volunteers was not needed or not as greatly needed as originally requested.  Basically the Federal Govt has different funding sources so they didn't need to use what had been donated.  But the citizens did an outstanding job supporting their awesome firefighters and sheriffs.

The city's phone lines were jammed from so many calls inside and outside of the city inquiring about evacuations, home conditions and the status of families in the city. Then, news stations were putting out a phone number (no one knows where it came from) for people to call that was not set up as a public service number (think one person and one call at a time when there are hundreds of calls all simultaneously) and the news that was put out was often hours old. That’s the way the noon, 5 o'clock news or the updates-on-the-hour works.

Communications between the Mayor, City Public Affairs, and other city officials who were in charge of pushing out information was scarce. I have the greatest regard for our city officials. It is just my understanding of what happened after talking to my sources which were the City Safety Committee (July 2012 meeting I attended), the Eagle Mountain Ham Radio Team and volunteers who participated during the emergency. I was not personally involved and realize I do not have the whole picture.

In the end, the average citizen only knows: no lives were lost, no homes were lost and no power was lost although cell phones were jammed from time to time due to the huge volume of calls. Again, I have nothing but praise for our Fire Department and cooperation between local, state and federal agencies. I look forward to an After Action Review or Lessons Learned from the City. But until then, this is the story as I have it reported to me.

Here are some key things to consider. First, Eagle Mountain has a very young and educated population. Almost all information put out by the City was through Social Media (Facebook and Twitter). They did use a reverse 911 for evacuation I heard, but I don't know enough about that to talk about it. So lesson number one. Involve social media. The caveat here is, make sure you trust the source (city officials) and not just anyone who posts. Social media works if its from the right source.

Number Two. Who is in charge? For localized emergencies that should be straight forward but as the emergency grows in size, expect confusion AND expect to receive conflicting information not just from the news/TV but also from the respective agencies. Each tries to do its best but there is confusion. Bottom line, sometimes, who is in charge, is very fuzzy, but when in doubt, get out.

Number Three. It doesn't matter who tells you to leave/evacuate. Do it, do it now. If the city is silent, but someone with a badge (Fire, Sheriff, Police) says get out of there. Don't delay. There are people who need help evacuating and you delaying your departure may affect others who need the assistance but aren't getting it because you are slow or unprepared.

Number Four. Have you checked your insurance coverage to make sure it covers Fire and if so, how much. Does it cover staying in a hotel while you are evacuated or while the house is being cleaned from smoke damage? Do you have an up-to-date home inventory that is stored away from the home? What will you take if you have 30 min or less? How will you contact your spouse if the local phone lines are jammed? Hint: call a long distance family number and they can relay messages. If you have no power, how will you get your information if the internet is down? Have you created a fire break between your home and the field.

Number Five. The population and local businesses were incredible by responding with large amounts of food and water and hours volunteered. But they weren't needed or not in such volume. The Public Affairs person was not getting any information from the Mayor to share with the citizens in a timely manner (it was spotty-again, as reported in the safety meeting, not my words). City officials who were unavailable had not trained their subordinates what to do in the event they needed to assume their role in an emergency.

Number Six. It is not always the disaster that affects people but the secondary effects. In this case, the fire did not cause evacuations. But the huge plume of smoke that descended upon parts of the city made it hard to breath and a fire hazard from embers descending on homes. Just because the fire or emergency seems far away, don't be surprised if you feel its effects. Another example is some homes could lose power because power lines were destroyed. No electricity, no hot water, sometimes no water from the pump, no fan in the furnace to blow heat or air conditioning. No fridge and sometimes no stove.
While people are too busy passing the buck or patting each other on their backs, I wanted you to think on these views. They may not all be accurate, but they have all been supported by those who were there. If anyone takes exception with them, then tell me and I will amend this.

1. Use social media for emergency communications. It works.

2. Expect confusion the larger the emergency. Hence, be prepared.

3. Know what to take in the event you need to evacuate in 15-30 minutes.

4. Expect to be affected by the immediate disaster or its secondary effects.

No comments:

Post a Comment