Headed for Disaster: Ten Ways to Improve Emergency Preparedness

Oct. 27, 2008
What can we learn from the emergency response mistakes of the past few years?
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Only months before Hurricane Katrina hit, our firm, Ross & Baruzzini, commissioned a survey of 200 emergency response leaders from municipalities, seaports and airports to find out where they stood on emergency preparedness. The results surprised us. Only twelve percent said terrorist attacks were the greatest threats to their facilities or states. Four times as many of these “down-in-the-trenches” managers worried instead about a natural disaster, such as a tornado, hurricane or earthquake.

Their concerns became reality when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans on August 29, cutting off the city’s key leaders from telephone and radio communications for two days. The emergency operations center failed when it ran out of diesel fuel. Cell-phone towers toppled in the winds, rendering wireless communications useless. In the following weeks, devastating hurricane winds and rain from Rita and Wilma blew into other parts of the Gulf Coast and Central Florida. Many began to wonder: Are we entering a new global cycle of violent storms?

I’m an architect, not a weather expert. But meteorologists are predicting more powerful storms, and the 2006 hurricane season is only a few months away. There is renewed emphasis on improving emergency operations facilities and updating regional emergency preparedness plans so that our communities are better prepared for the next disaster, whether it is a natural occurrence or a terrorist attack.

In our survey of emergency response leaders, called CODE Red: The State of Emergency Preparedness (see sidebar), nearly half of the respondents cited bureaucracy and lack of coordination as primary obstacles to local improvement in emergency preparedness. Almost half indicated that there has been little or no improvement in their emergency preparedness capabilities in the four years since 9-11, yet the other half noted that there have been major steps forward. From our work with facility managers and others, we think there is room for a more optimistic assessment.
Undoubtedly, there are lessons to be learned, and more must be done to improve emergency preparedness at all levels. I’m reminded of the quote from Winston Churchill, who managed his share of crises: “When eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber.” That’s another way to say we must have a clear vision to guide our progress.

In that spirit, I offer these top 10 ways to improve emergency preparedness.

Gain consensus on a regional response plan.
An emergency is no time for a city, county or municipality to determine how to coordinate resources and efforts between multiple jurisdictions. Emergencies don’t respect political boundaries. A consensus among all stakeholders is essential.
Develop an interoperable communications system.
Progress has been made since 9-11, when police and fire officials in New York City had difficulty communicating and sharing information with each other. State-of-the-market systems today use the same frequency for police, fire and other emergency responder groups during an event. A tiered communications system including radio, telephone, cell phones, cable TV, data and Internet-based systems offers the best approach to maintaining continuity of government.

Follow the National Emergency Response Plan.
Developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and adopted in November 2004, this plan offers a framework for managing an incident so all agencies and disciplines use similar protocols and terminology. With the definition of 15 emergency support functions, municipalities have the recommended structure to provide a well-planned response, coupled with EOC facilities designed to consolidate overlapping functions and make decisions quickly. Emergency support functions range from transportation, communications and emergency management, to public health and medical services, as well as long-term community recovery and mitigation.

Develop a business continuity plan with back-up systems for power, communications and data.
In our survey of emergency responders, 93% said a redundant emergency power system is the most critical feature to sustain operations for a long period of time. Another 85% felt a redundant communication system is extremely or very important. Some 85% also felt a back-up data center is extremely or very important in maintaining continuity of government. We recommend two emergency generators with three days of fuel supply as a minimum design guideline. The telephone system should come from two distinct central offices and Internet access from two separate high-speed lines. It is also good practice to have a base radio system and a ham radio system.

Conduct a threat and vulnerability assessment before building or remodeling your emergency operations center.
A thorough review should include the input of several experts: a security expert to assess the potential threat level and identify known vulnerabilities; a structural engineer to look at issues such as blast resistance; and a communications expert to define suitable methodologies for maintaining business continuity during and after an event.

Seriously consider a new regional emergency operations center.
Most facilities in place today are too small and inadequate to accommodate responders and policy makers simultaneously—a key ingredient in consolidating functions. Times do change. Challenges become more severe. That is one of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Incorporate human comfort.
During a crisis, emergency management personnel are making critical decisions 24/7, often under severe stress. Comfort in this setting is not a luxury, but a necessity, with ergonomics, safety, durability, aesthetics and quiet areas all part of our design criteria. In fact, we’re designing a 9-1-1 center for a major city with an interior outdoor courtyard, complete with trees, winding paths, benches and a fountain, to soothe and refresh employees before they go back to their jobs.

Develop layers of security to deter, detect and deny intruders.
Best practices in security design include a series of ever-tightening circles beginning at the site perimeter, so the most vital portions of the emergency operations center are protected by multiple layers of security. Many critical operations centers have not thought through security measures well enough to address today’s new challenges. Many locations are vulnerable. For instance, it may be possible for a truck full of explosives to drive within proximity of the emergency generator that feeds critical power loads.

Use cutting-edge technology to reduce the potential for human failure and manage incidents more efficiently.
Examples of recommended technology include satellite communications and global positioning systems. It’s also easier to manage and recover from an incident with state-of-the-art information systems. For example, during recovery you will have a hard time hunting down an answer on the phone if you have a pressing question, such as, Where can I get meals ready to eat for 1,000 people? Having a database of such critical information ready and available, however, will help you speed your recovery.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
Have a functioning back-up emergency operations center that might have a dual use. Several cities in which our firm is designing new emergency operations centers are leaving their old centers in place, planning for the day when something prevents the primary operations center from functioning.
Six words really say it all: “Proper previous planning prevents poor performance.” That is our motto and our operating premise. The key is to make no assumptions and be prepared. As we’ve seen this year, your community’s future may depend upon it.


Survey Finds Room for Improvement
Ross & Baruzzini’s recent survey, CODE Red: The State of Emergency Preparedness, was based on telephone interviews conducted in June and July 2005 with 200 individuals responsible for overseeing or managing the security/emergency preparedness of their facilities, or overseeing state or local policy regarding safety, security, and/or emergency preparedness. Study participants represent:
• state departments of homeland security
• major airports
• coastal and inland ports
• first responders (police and fire departments)
• municipal administrators (mayors, city managers)

What are the greatest threats?
Despite public concern about and the media attention given to terrorist attacks, the nation’s security managers said they tend to worry about natural disasters, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, the most (48%). In fact, 26% cite thunderstorms with lightning, hail, or high winds as the biggest threat. These same officials say that explosive devices (27%) are the biggest man-made threat to the welfare of their facilities or states.

Obstacles to Improvement
Almost half (48%) of security officials across the country cite bureaucracy as the main obstacle to receiving federal funds to improve security and emergency preparedness.

Almost half (47%) also believe better coordination among municipalities, state government, and federal government will most effectively improve the current status of homeland security in the U.S.

Safer today?
Almost half (46%) of top security chiefs at airports, sea/inland ports, state DHS, municipalities, fire departments, and police forces say their facilities (or states) have made minor or no improvements or have seen a deterioration in emergency preparedness since the events of 9-11.
What’s most vulnerable?
Despite boosts in security after 9-11, public buildings (38%), including monuments and public parks, are rated most vulnerable to man-made emergencies by top security chiefs at airports, sea/inland ports, state DHS, municipalities, fire departments, and police forces.
U.S. facilities most vulnerable to a natural emergency are power generation facilities (41%), water supplies (38%), and communications systems (36%).
Where are the federal funds going?
Since federal funding for homeland security began a few years ago, the nation’s top security managers who have received federal funding (75% of the municipalities and sea/air ports) say the majority of the money is being spent on emergency response equipment for firefighters or law enforcement (75%), training programs (67%), or communications systems (60%).

Mike Shea is senior vice president at Ross & Baruzzini, an engineering and technology design firm that has designed security and emergency preparedness systems for more than 200 public and private facilities. Mr. Shea leads the firm’s Critical Operations Design and Engineering (CODE) practice. For information, visit http://code.rossbar.com.