Okay, Let’s Try This Again


In June 2009, I blogged about spontaneous bystander response, or rather, the difference between that and a bunch of people jumping into their Fire SUV and driving to say, Bastrop, Texas, only to be turned away from the action.  I don't expect civilians to understand.  On the face of it, it looks like the Feds are turning away perfectly acceptable resources. The response community, however, obviously needs a big-ass brick dropped on their head with a note wrapped around it that says: "Don't go if you aren't invited."

Let's put some perspective on the issue AGAIN.  I've been dealing with disaster response for a very long time.  When I need additional resources, I have found that there is an electronic device in most response apparatus that I can use it to call for help.  In case you are wondering, this would be the radio.  In these days, however, a cell phone, e-mail or any other number of methods may be employed (in case you didn't know).

We are not discussing the desire for people to help their neighbors by bringing clothing, money, food, water, labor, etc.  We are talking about bringing yourself (and usually not much more) and saying, "I can fight fire".  We are talking about popping a sleeping bag in the car and going for a road trip, thinking that in a lot of these situations, it is going to be like camping, sans Kumbaya and S'mores, but with an extra helping of excitement.

As I and countless others have said, time after time after time:

The main problem faced by those of us in the disaster community when it comes to spontaneous response, is the fact that as the designated adult supervision at these events, we have a responsibility to insure not only mitigation (or depending on the complexity and scope, control) of the incident, but the safety of those who were not necessarily part of the problem before, but now are. 

My whole reason for saying this is that while most of us in the response community can certainly appreciate the altruism in bystander response to an emergency, there are cases upon cases in every aspect of disaster and technical rescue response where the spontaneous bystander response in and of itself became an additional rescue mission for us on our arrival.  If anyone wants to be bored to death, I can cite example after example, and even put you in touch with others who can do the same.  This has not changed for any emergency in decades.

You may say, "Hey, these guys were calling for help and nobody came."  That is YOUR perspective on the situation.  The reality is not that there is a true lack of resources.  At Katrina, for example, there were plenty of resources.  There was just a little problem of certain parties not knowing the plan for getting those resources, or not knowing how to deliver them, or sending them to the wrong places.  There isn't a lack of resources, there is a lack of knowledge on how to put them in place and make the work.

This is where the Feds come in, believe it or not.  Because the Feds have a few things going for them that in a lot of cases, the locals, the counties, and the state don't have.  Principally, that would be money and coordination.

Having been involved intimately with a few of these little dances, I have witnessed firsthand the dialogue going on in the command post with some of these elected officials:

Fire Chief: "Okay, we have fourteen houses burning over on XYZ Circle, but we don't have the engine companies necessary to cover that area. I need to have the authority to call the state and have them declare a state of emergency."

Mayor: "Well, that's your job, dammit!  Hell no, I don't want a bunch of people from Capital City over here telling us how to do things their way!  Don't you have a plan?  Why don't you just use those guys with the pickup trucks who showed up this morning?  Doesn't the state have a bunch of those thing-a-ma-jigs they can send over?  You know, strike forces, or task teams or something?"

Fire Chief: "Strike teams and task forces.  Yes, but this is the representative from the State here.  They are offering their help, but since this hasn't been declared a disaster by the Governor yet, before I agree to sign this Memorandum of Understanding, I needed to let you know this is going to cost us money…"

Mayor: "Is that all you are waiting on?  Dammit, sign whatever you need to sign!"

Fire Chief: "By ordinance, I am required to get your permission before creating a liability for the city over $100,000."

Mayor: "WHAT?  How much are we talking about here?"

Fire Chief:  "I don't know, but more than that.  So this guy says we can have the Governor declare a state of emergency…"

Mayor: "I don't want those a#$%$@*s from the Capital down here telling us what to do.  Just see what you can do for a little while."

Fire Chief: "Ohhhh-kay…"

Now, I have no idea if that's what is going on in this situation.  I would actually doubt it, because they declared a state of emergency pretty quickly.  But most localities are pretty reluctant to declare that they need help, because to them it is a loss of control, and when faced with that breakover point (where they can't control it, but don't want to release it), that's when the chaos thickens.  I actually wrote a paper a number of years ago on why local fire departments won't develop plans or call for help when they need it.

So let's cut to the chase.  Feel free to read the earlier article.  Feel free to hunt down any other number of articles I have written on the subject.  But while the dates have changed, the situation has not.  The system for deploying emergency response assets around the country, while not perfect, is better than it used to be.  And the situation is improving.  But if you are just dying to go somewhere and help out, instead of piling into the family roadster and hiking out for the unknown, instead, determine what equipment and apparatus you can send somewhere, decide who you will send, identify their capability using relatively well-known recommendations out there, and get with your state to find out where you can list your resource through mutual aid agreements.  Do this ahead of time and when the time comes, if your services are needed, they will call you.  

Or even better, establish "sister community" arrangements in advance: work with other agencies and communities out there on a special agreement that if your community is impacted, you will call them and likewise, they will call you.  Do this with communities who are in other regions or states that permit you to get assets no one else is likely to be drafting from.

The short story is this though: Although the sentiment is appreciated, drama is not something the locals need when chaos has come to call.  They need coordinated assistance of the right kind.  And they need an asset, not a liability.  If you are going to help, go to help, not to add to the problem.  And you may not like to hear that, but it's the truth.

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