FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
Southern California recently went through a series of firestorms unlike any the area has experienced in recorded history. Raging fires fanned by strong inland winds roared across hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed scores of homes and businesses. More than 750,000 people were evacuated as the fires raged for several days.
The fires were unpredictable, police and fire personnel went into full callback mode and emergency resources were stretched past the point of exhaustion. Many people went to bed thinking they were safe, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by a reverse-911 call advising them to immediately evacuate. Evacuation centers were opened around the county, and the football stadium served as a refuge for thousands.
Initially, high winds kept many of the air resources grounded and prevented commanders from obtaining an aerial view of the situation. Live TV news feeds from roving reporters provided courageous but limited insight, including one reporter who bravely watched his own home of 25 years burn to the ground.
Ash rained down on areas 20 miles away from the actual fire zones, and at one point, I saw a line of fire stretching for several miles across rolling open ground with flames shooting 40 feet in the air.
The initial after-action reviews indicated evacuation route strategies and all-clear declarations needed improvement. But all things considered, this was a well-handled disaster response that didn t go unnoticed, even by media sources on the other side of the country.
Not surprisingly, the disaster has prompted many to draw comparisons to what happened during and after Hurricane Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast. The mass evacuations, huge loss of property, strained emergency services and use of a stadium as an evacuation center all sounded very familiar.
Unlike the Katrina response, though, the SoCal system seemed to work. It wasn t perfect by any means, but by most accounts, emergency planning and preparedness worked. There had been a lot of work and practice since fires in the area four years ago, and the efforts paid off handsomely.
An editorial in the Washington Post contrasted the firestorm response with that of Katrina, stating, Because of well-organized disaster preparedness planning at the state and regional levels and drills that are continually performed, California is considered the gold standard of emergency response. The same editorial concluded that leadership was key and praised San Diego s use of reverse- 911 technology.
The bottom line: No, San Diego isn t New Orleans, and an across-the-board comparison may not be appropriate or fair we re literally talking about fire and water. But, we can derive some lessons by specifically looking at what worked:
1. Plan and practice like your life depends on it. Drills should involve the people who will be involved (not those who get assigned to go to the drill) and include scenarios consistent with the reality of the environment and area. If there s a weakness, fix it. And the next time you find yourself saying, Somebody ought to . . . , remember, nobody named Somebody works there.
2. Leadership is paramount. The key to survival is acknowledging we must take ownership and responsibility. Local leaders, including public safety, can t blame the federal government when they fail to perform their own core duties.
3. Technology can play a key role if it s effectively leveraged. Examine your needs and determine if there s appropriate technology for your region. If so, usually there s funding available if you do your homework. By the way, if you invest in something, use it until it becomes routine. Technology that sits on the shelf until needed will probably fail.
4. You must layer your planning with contingencies. There must be options because one thing you can depend on with disasters is that some things will go sideways.
5. Emergency workers also need to plan. Think in terms of what disaster is most likely to occur in your area and talk it out with your family. Have supplies, an evacuation plan, a meeting spot and an out-of-the-area communication contact with whom messages can be left. The peace of mind gained by this preparation is priceless.
Every response provides a learning opportunity, and by now, we should be getting good at this. If you haven t had the misfortune of experiencing a major disaster in your area, count your blessings and use this time to learn what you need to do. For a look at one region s preparedness efforts, take a look at Evacuation Drill on p. 38.
Dale Stockton, Editor