Even in a mandatory evacuation of a city some people must remain in the area of evacuation. First responders are probably the most obvious example of those who stay when other are ordered to leave. Without police, looting would be rampant; without fire personnel, the fires started by the hazard would sweep through the city; and without EMS (emergency medical services) workers, victims and rescuers alike would have to wait for medical aid. Many businesses that have to operate for the common good also have essential staff members who have to remain in place. One of these who received some well-deserved attention after Hurricane Katrina made landfall was Ricky Ray, a pump operator for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, who stayed at his post keeping pump station number 7 running. How does an employer ask an employee to stay when the employee’s family has to face the uncertainty of evacuation and sheltering? Tourism – as Matthew Kallmyer, deputy director of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, points out – is the life blood of the city. So, in addition to ensuring the safety of the local population, New Orleans had to make sure that visitors to the city were able to get safely away. The Crescent City did this in part by ensuring that commercial airlines could run scheduled flights out of the city for as long as conditions allowed.
Southwest Airlines: A Shrewd and Sensible Strategy
Southwest Airlines is one of those airlines. Southwest applied a long-standing strategy from the airline’s contingency plan by sending the company’s New Orleans staff home to be with their families during the evacuation, and sending in replacement crews from outside the threatened area. As a result, Southwest’s New Orleans staff members were not forced to choose between job and family – but the company continued to carry out its crucial role in the evacuation while also protecting the company’s own interests. Although the replacement crews from Southwest were able to evacuate on the last planes out of New Orleans, police, EMS, fire, and other essential rescue and infrastructure workers would be needed in the immediate aftermath of the storm. These staff members could neither rely on the availability of transportation back into the city nor delay their own essential operations. After all, those who did not heed the evacuation order would need assistance, and property needed protection from looting, fire, and other threats. The City of New Orleans set up first-responder shelters for fire, police, EMS, and National Guard workers as well as such other essential recovery personnel as Department of Public Works (DPW) staff. The shelters offered a place for the recovery teams to hunker down while the storm passed over them and then emerge immediately. Not incidentally, one of the shelters during Hurricane Gustav was at the New Orleans Convention Center, which had played such an emblematic role of “the things that went wrong” during the response operations after Katrina hit. It is incumbent upon leadership to provide for the safety of the emergency staff; this is as true during a disaster as it is during day-to-day operations. Although many “bad things” happen during almost any disaster, there is no excuse for not taking the steps needed, particularly those that can be taken in advance, to safeguard the dedicated first responders and other workers who are called upon to preserve the safety of all citizens.
Joseph Cahill is the director of medicolegal investigations for the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He previously served as exercise and training coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and as emergency planner in the Westchester County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management. He also served for five years as citywide advanced life support (ALS) coordinator for the FDNY – Bureau of EMS. Before that, he was the department’s Division 6 ALS coordinator, covering the South Bronx and Harlem. He also served on the faculty of the Westchester County Community College’s paramedic program and has been a frequent guest lecturer for the U.S. Secret Service, the FDNY EMS Academy, and Montefiore Hospital.