USFA Report on 2011 Tornado Response

On April 27, 2011, the southeastern United States experienced a devastating series of tornados starting in Mississippi, hitting Alabama and Georgia very hard, and trailing off into Tennessee. The dollar loss has been roughly tallied at $6 billion in insured losses and a total of over $10 billion for all losses. An estimated 336 lives were lost in the region’s tornados and related events, with 239 of those in Alabama. At least 10,000 homes were heavily damaged or destroyed and dozens of public facilities were rendered inoperative. Many areas that were isolated by road closures and power outages extended over 2 weeks in some rural areas. At least five tornados were rated at EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF Scale), and, if laid end to end, the tornado tracks in this region would stretch across the country!

A series of meetings was held in the summer of 2011 to look at fire department and emergency medical services (EMS) organization activities in Alabama and Georgia during the tornados. Over 50 representatives of impacted departments attended and each had an opportunity to respond to specific questions as well as provide a free range of their own inputs. This report condenses those meetings and inputs and provides an insight into the routines and needs of local fire and EMS agencies in disasters. There are 66 specific observations/recommendations included in this report as well as four operational priorities identified. However, there are five overarching critical areas noted that were repeatedly identified:

1. Lack of disaster preparedness. While some communities were better prepared than others, clearly emergency operations planning is largely nonexistent or maintained. Many responders admitted to not knowing the details of their community Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). There were clear exceptions, usually from communities with staffed emergency management offices, some strategic planning, and a training program. This is an area that can be addressed with available training and leadership attention.

2. Need for more disaster management training. All attendees identified needs for more training and exercises including, but also beyond, operations training requirements. This included more Integrated Emergency Management Courses (IEMCs) as well as “process” training for documentation required for cost recovery as well as “job aids” to assist them while performing these jobs.

3. Need for closer coordination and communication with State and Federal recovery staff. All attendees indicated a need for a tighter connection with their recovery assistance teams/personnel. They were of one voice that a qualified U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) representative should be deployed specifically and specially to assist with Public Assistance (PA) and fire and EMS matters. The USFA representative could remain connected to them throughout the PA recovery process. This would instill confidence in them, assist in speeding recovery, and ensure accuracy and efficacy.

4. Incident Command System (ICS) used and supported operations. The use of ICS is now repeated in the lexicon of these agencies. While it is likely that few are purest, all understand the process, apply what seems to work for them, and can converse with external personnel and each other with confidence and understanding. The Herculean efforts made in the past decade to propagate the National Incident Management System (NIMS) have borne some fruit!

5. Need for Public Works (PW) to participate, learn, and practice ICS. The events quickly turned into PW events once the response phase was over. We need to prepare the local PW personnel on how to participate in ICS as well as to take an active role in leadership.

Click on the pdf link below to view the full USFA report.

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