By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest
As Hurricane Dorian approaches the coast of the Carolinas, a large-scale response is underway to deliver services ranging from search and rescue to command and control. While there are many locals involved in rescue and recovery efforts, the large Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) and federal response bolsters the amount of people and equipment available to ensure that the response meets the size of the disaster.
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Since no community can keep an on-duty force able to handle a Category 5 hurricane or other types of disasters, communities rely on different aid systems. That includes mutual aid, the EMAC and federal assistance.
But what aid do teams provide? How does involvement benefit those agencies who send people to assist in disaster response? In today’s political environment, elected officials are asking, “What’s in it for me?”
Types of Disaster Response Teams
Disaster response teams vary in function and size, but are often focused on command, search and rescue, emergency medical services (EMS), and humanitarian assistance. One of our local teams that deployed to Florida, for example, is a Type 3 Incident Management Team. They are currently assisting the Florida Emergency Operations Center (EOC) with a variety of tasks.
Because of their familiarity with the planning process, proper Incident Command System (ICS) forms, and EOC functions, this team provides assistance and some relief to local and state EOC representatives. This aid not only allows for the increased efficiency and longevity of EOC activities, it also frees up local people for some time to make sure their own families are safe and evacuated. After all, it is difficult to work at full capacity when you are worried about your family’s safety.
Similarly, another type of team that departed from our area is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) team, of which I am a member. These federal teams conduct search and rescue efforts in a multitude of hazardous areas from water to building collapses.
In relation to collapsed buildings, these teams have the greatest capability in the nation. The 80-person task force is divided into many talented teams comprised of rescue specialists, search specialists, hazmat specialists and medical/logistical support. This task force is self-sufficient for 72 hours and can deploy for two weeks or more, depending on their workload.
Medical teams are also being deployed to areas affected by Hurricane Dorian. One example of this type of team is the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT). This team is similar to the FEMA US&R team; they are self-sufficient and have a variety of specialists that make up the team.
Team Involvement and Disaster Response Agencies
Each of the disaster response teams acquires its members through a memorandum of understanding or agreements that specify how the members are affiliated with that team. That same document also contains specifics related to workers’ compensation as well as compensation and benefits.
For instance, the FEMA US&R system was designed to be cost-neutral to its agency (fire department, engineering firm and so on) that supplies team members. In order to accomplish this goal, individual team members are paid and the agency is reimbursed for the person who backfills the job of the deployed employee. This practice makes the cost neutral to the agency that supplies the employee.
While I have not deployed as a member of other teams, the EMAC has requested that disaster response teams only receive funds to cover the deployed team member and no backfill costs, which can actually be more expensive for agencies. While it could be argued that the aid is worth the cost or that the agency supplying team could receive assistance at some point, it is still a financial burden to the agency supplying the team member.
Benefits of Deploying Disaster Response Teams
Imagine pulling up to a three-alarm fire after you have commanded an eight-person team in a search environment that involves the destruction of an entire town. By comparison, the three-alarm fire seems much easier to handle.
This priceless experience gained from handling a large-scale event is what makes disaster response teams worth the potential costs, the inconvenience of filling their absences and the reimbursement paperwork. From the Incident Management Team (IMT) perspective, these personnel are now experienced in working in both an EOC and command post for a very complex and large event. No training, no matter what the cost, can replicate this experience.
The other huge benefit that comes from these disaster response teams is the networking that occurs at disaster events. While providing aid at disasters, I spent as much time talking to other team members about issues in our organizations as I did about search and rescue specifics.
Many of the personnel who belong to these teams are future leaders in the fire service and networking occurs with highly motivated, upwardly mobile personnel. What better group is there to network with for the betterment of your organization?
The skills attained at disaster events can be used in local communities to ensure that the response to a local event has the best possibility of a positive outcome. Team members deployed to large-scale disaster events have noted when failures occur before their arrival and have figured out how to prevent the same mistakes from happening in their own communities.
With these dedicated team members, current communities and potentially your own community in the future can provide the service citizens require during large-scale events. It’s a group effort.