Sirens Ring, Are You Listening?

 

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Winter storms sometimes evoke memories of emergency operations center (EOC) activations. The activations take time away from family and can stress relationships ‒ especially when the power is out at home and a spouse learns the EOC is “enjoying” generator power, catered food and plenty of television. The storms are often slow-moving and far-reaching. They occur over several hours or days. They involve many people.

Winter storms provide some of the best moderate difficulty and impact exercises a jurisdiction can experience. The hazard is provided courtesy of Mother Nature, so there are no nefarious characters to apprehend, motives to consider, fault to assign, or the urgency to respond that accompanies other emergencies. They usually unfold with plenty of warning. Emergency managers have time to anticipate impacts, activate teams and pre-position (or at least alert) resources. When impacts occur, they typically happen in familiar locations (i.e. low-lying flood areas) or in typical ways (i.e. power outages or fallen trees). Severe winter storms can involve entire organizations and communities, and happen with some regularity. Emergency managers should make the most of them as training and team-building opportunities.

Below are ten objectives emergency managers can consider before the next severe winter storm:

  1. Notify key members of the response organization. Test systems of communication. Validate contact information. Evaluate how expectations are met.
  2. Reflect on past storm impacts.  Review a hazard and vulnerability assessment, mitigation plan, and past disaster recovery projects. Anticipate what, where and when impacts might happen.
  3. Consider pre-staging resources. Sand-filling stations and heating centers need time to set-up. Vehicle and fuel storage tanks should be topping-off. Generators should be started. Staffing plans should be prepared as if an EOC might be activated for several days.
  4. Plug-in to the best sources of information. River Forecast Centers provide great river and stream data online. Meteorologists are eager to share weather briefings.
  5. Coordinate or support information flow. It’s frustrating and wastes time to attend multiple conference calls or reconcile conflicting forecast or impact information. If other organizations don’t already do it, consider hosting regular, joint calls with partner agencies so all can hear the same information at the same time.
  6. Get ahead of the public information requirements. Push preparedness information out before it is needed. Anticipate questions that might be asked. Warm-up the public information officer so they can set and maintain an appropriate tone. Coordinate message development and handling to speak with “one voice.”
  7. Get executives involved and earn their confidence. Brief them early on potential impacts, preparations made and contingency plans, if storm impacts get bad.
  8. Consider organizational or administrative problems experienced in the past. What will EOC staff drink and eat during activations? How long will an EOC team work before another team provides relief? What will be done if EOC members get cranky? Avoid previous mistakes when possible to do so.
  9. Consider when to ask for help and proclaim an emergency. At what point will mutual aid, state or federal assistance be needed? Inspire the EOC to answer questions before they become difficult decision points or dire needs.
  10. Demonstrate and foster teamwork. Model how public safety professionals spend holidays. Team members not accustomed to response should see that good responders are prepared, focused, calm and collaborative. Keep people busy with a moderate amount of work monitoring, planning, and practicing their skills.  Build team proficiency and confidence.

Ultimately, no one enjoys a severe winter storm or being away from family and friends… unless they have a terribly dysfunctional family. During winter, EOCs become second homes for many emergency managers and EOC staff become extended family. Storm activations, if well planned and implemented, make EOCs and teams much stronger.

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