Perspective

Five Ways to Improve Your Local Disaster Plan Today

August 25, 2017

Effective disaster planning and response implementation are skills learned the hard way—in real disaster situations. However, planners can follow best practices to reduce the unknowns.

1. Build and Test Assumptions about a Scenario

It’s no longer enough to plan for no electricity or no water. A strong plan engages the utilities to understand the magnitude and likelihood of service failures. Testing assumptions means asking questions like the following:

  • How far and wide will the impact be felt by local communities?
  • How long will it likely take to get these services back online?
  • What are the bottlenecks to success, such as a limited number of people who can do certain tasks?
  • What redundancies or agreements can be put in place to get these services functioning faster?

For example, in large metropolitan areas, some water delivery is dependent on electrical pumps, while other areas rely on gravity since the water comes from a reservoir upstream. A disaster planner could evaluate which areas of the city would have water regardless of electrical availability.

While it might be assumed that bridges in and out of Manhattan will be open for supply transport, a good disaster planner will calculate the likelihood of that. Will all the bridges be open? What if one is not? How do the response teams clear non-essential traffic? What is the backup plan if none of the bridges are passable? These are all vital questions.

2. Leverage the Small Window of Time before a Disaster

Some disasters, such as earthquakes or tornadoes, do not allow for proactive planning. Others, such as hurricanes, may have a few days of lead time. Those days or hours provide a window of opportunity to move infrastructure into place. The best plans have clear timelines of what is happening, hour-by-hour, before the disaster.

I was in Baton Rouge during Hurricane Gustav. Our team went down two days before to help put emergency plan elements into place. We watched as the storm shut each system down. We saw portable toilets being blown away and power lines coming down on 18-wheelers. It made us realize how much easier it was to put disaster response infrastructure into place before the actual disaster.

3. Run Realistic Training Exercises with Lots of Surprises

Running realistic training exercises not only helps sharpen real-life training skills, but also demonstrates how trainees should manage their mindsets and emotions. For example, during a training exercise at an Air Force base in Korea, a captain took charge and was making great progress in the response implementation. The people got out of the building and were triaged. During the scenario, I met him in the back of an ambulance and said, “You did a great job; you assumed leadership, but why are you in the ambulance going to the hospital? Who is in charge back where you just left?” That was a moment of realization for that captain. He had been so caught up in the moment that he tried to do somebody else’s job. In disaster planning, all participants need to understand how their actions fit together. Knowing how to adjust the plan on the fly is the most important skill to attain. People need to keep the big picture in mind, which is challenging when faced with trying circumstances.

4. Build Relationships with Organizations across Distances

Disaster response starts with the local jurisdiction. Those leaders can ask for help from the state and the state can ask for help from federal agencies. Preparing for large disasters inherently means reaching out beyond the borders of a jurisdiction and building relationships.

The catastrophic response plan for a large metropolitan city involved services for 800,000 people. Planners calculated amounts of supplies, such as cots, food, and medical needs. The initial estimate required four million square feet of storage space downtown to store the items. Imagine the cost! The plan prepared by LMI involved a series of agreements to bring in supplies, which included 40,000 square feet of storage space in a nearby state to store the initially required materials. After that, vendors would bring supplies to the city. Many vendors just happen to be in adjoining states, so contracts were put in place to ship the items instead of storing them in the city forever.

5. Get Creative with How Services Are Delivered

One large metropolitan area got creative with their emergency plan by encouraging pet owners to avoid sheltering in place. People were encouraged to bring pets to the shelters with them and get Polaroid instamatic photos taken with their pets; one photo stayed with the pet, the other went with the owner. This enabled a smoother transition when the pet was reunited with its owner post-event or threat. Due to the costly technology the tamperproof photos require, the planners partnered with the city police department to use their crime scene cameras for photography needs. The pet shelter plan involves sourcing those cameras and communicating to pet owners that their pets will be safe.

LMI brings a wealth of disaster planning experience to our clients from our background in the military and our work for many local, state, and federal agencies. 

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