Natural Disasters: Challenges & Opportunities

Every emergency or disaster presents a relatively unique set of challenges. By their nature, natural disasters are difficult or impossible to avert or disrupt in advance. For example, science and technology have yet to develop techniques, equipment, or strategies to divert a tornado, deflect high winds, or steer a hurricane away from landfall. Hence, a primary challenge of a naturally occurring disaster is to identify the types of natural disasters that can affect a community and the likely consequences that will manifest. Although most local and state governments have identified the hazards to which they are most susceptible, in a broader sense, the United States must realistically anticipate any type of scenario imaginable.

Threat Assessments, Resources & Mutual Aid Agreements

Emergency preparedness and planning typically revolve around a comprehensive hazard analysis, which can provide the local, state, and federal governments with a general picture of the types of disasters that threaten specific geographical areas. Since 2011, with the issuance of Presidential Preparedness Directive 8, the Department of Homeland Security, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has used a Threat Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) process to support and facilitate the development of a national preparedness goal and a corresponding national preparedness system. The THIRA process addresses three primary types of threats and hazards: natural, technological (nonhuman-caused failure of a system), and human-caused.

Concurrent with the identification of the threats and hazards that confront a community and its state, the THIRA process defines the core capabilities necessary for each mission area, including prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery. Incidentally, the THIRA process closely mirrors an earlier process promulgated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency more than two decades ago; the Hazard Identification/Capability Assessment – Multi-Year Development Plan (HICA-MYDP) provides similar outcomes but, over time, it became unmanageable.

Another challenge is the accurate and comprehensive identification of the resources necessary to respond should a disaster occur – particularly any of the disasters identified in the THIRA process. With that comes the identification of the source of those resources. If the necessary resources are available and accessible locally, then that addresses at least two major hurdles: (a) timely response; and (b) effective management based on relative familiarity. However, as is well documented, not every jurisdiction can obtain and maintain every imaginable resource. In such cases, most jurisdictions plan to obtain necessary resources through neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid.

For many years, agencies and organizations have employed basic mutual aid agreements as a means to overcome local shortfalls. However, another challenge frequently encountered during a natural disaster is that disasters do not conform to political boundaries. In many instances, a natural disaster – as well as other types of disasters – affects numerous localities simultaneously. When the same event affects neighboring jurisdictions that must respond first to their own conditions, this can render traditional neighbor-to-neighbor mutual aid agreements null and make resources unavailable.

In the 1990s, the federal government encouraged states to begin developing intrastate mutual aid systems, sometimes referred to as “statewide mutual aid.” Since then, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management has coordinated and administered a statewide mutual aid program across the Commonwealth. Every jurisdiction in the Commonwealth is now a member of the program, so each jurisdiction has agreed to share its resources – with or without an associated cost – provided the home jurisdiction does not need the resources at that time.

When a jurisdiction’s resources and its neighbors’ resources are either unavailable or incapable of confronting the present threats and hazards, the next option is to request statewide mutual aid through the appropriate channels. In many cases, resources from unaffected and distant jurisdictions within the state can mobilize and deploy resources to meet the needs of the affected area or areas. This widely practiced “next step” helps jurisdictions acquire resources from remote locations.

Further, at the national level, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) provides a mechanism for accessing resources from other states in times of need. Again, in the 1990s, efforts to promulgate the EMAC process began between several states and gradually grew. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, every state has become a signatory to the EMAC agreement.

Intrastate, or statewide, mutual aid as well as EMAC assistance have become commonplace in every state in the union as well as the U.S. territories. In a sense, these programs have not only taken emergency planning “outside the box,” but they also have enlarged the box. The resource pool at the national level far exceeds that of any jurisdiction and certainly most individual states. The relatively simple process of accessing critically needed resources from distant locations – sometimes in other states – provides a significantly expanded resource capability.

Managing Resources & Ongoing Training

However, simply being able to access an array of resources from anywhere does not provide some fundamental needs for disasters. Another major challenge that can quickly arise is in actually managing the resources committed to the tactical intervention operations. Beginning in 2003, the National Incident Management System has encouraged, if not fostered, the establishment of a standardized incident management system. The Incident Command System (ICS) has been widely taught, discussed, and even practiced in the past decade.

ICS benefits are now more widely accepted at the fundamental level. Yet, there is still contention that it does not provide adequate mechanisms for managing widespread disasters. Some continuing detractors of ICS have criticized the system for being inadequate to manage the impact of Superstorm Sandy, which struck almost the entire east coast of the United States and well inland from the coast itself.

Managing disasters such as Sandy demands a degree of flexibility and adaptability to changing conditions and situational needs beyond those typically encountered in localized scenarios. The ICS provides a number of templates for managing even uncommon incidents. Natural disasters with geographically widespread impacts necessitate nontraditional, and perhaps even uncomfortable organization and decision-making.

Typically, for the “average” incident manager or emergency manager, training and application of ICS has had limited geographic and political impacts. In essence, most incident commanders and emergency managers limit their thinking and practice to local incidents with local consequences. If practice is limited to routine or recurring drills, the execution will naturally be limited to the level practiced. Although that may be acceptable for commonplace situations, an extremely rare disaster, such as Sandy, would severely challenge and stress the systems’ application.

Organizations that use ICS on a daily basis in addition to periodically training and using more-advanced incident command methodology frequently find less stress or distress in adapting to major disasters such as Sandy or Katrina. For example, in its response to the devastation of Sandy, the National Park Service applied expanded ICS principles to manage its massive operations in more than five states simultaneously for upwards of one hundred different national parks, monuments, and historical sites. Practices taught in ICS-400 (ICS for Command and General Staff – Complex Incidents) – including multiagency coordination, establishment of an “Incident Complex” (i.e., a specific organizational template used for large and dispersed operations under one incident commander), management organization, and use of area command organizations to manage the many and geographically dispersed sites – made the oversight, coordination, and execution of the many tasks both possible and manageable.

Expanding the Incident Management Strategy

In summary, natural disasters can occur anywhere and frequently ignore political boundaries. A natural disaster presents both challenges and opportunities not typically encountered or practiced (exercised) in emergency management. The challenges involve thinking and managing beyond the traditional and customary parameters for incident commanders and emergency managers. As such, a natural disaster may demand that the incident management efforts be elevated to an often unfamiliar and, quite likely, an uncomfortable level.

Natural disasters often necessitate multijurisdictional efforts and coordination. They also often require the integration of numerous and diverse resources. Sometimes resources may only be available at distant locations, which results in response times far longer than customary for local or regional efforts. On the other hand, the opportunities include employing concepts of incident command built on the basic management components of command, planning, logistics, finance, administration, and operation to establish a cohesive management organization.

Existing, albeit uncommon, organization templates provide means to confront and manage the challenges of major natural disasters. In order to meet these challenges, incident commanders and emergency managers can enhance their efforts by continuing advanced training and/or revisiting past training to refresh their understanding of methodology available for the once-in-a-lifetime challenges.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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