Every incident and every response offers new lessons learned. As Hurricane Ike narrowed its path toward the Gulf coast last week, task force units and response teams from across the country packed up and drove in while the locals drove out.
Ike's arrival was no surprise. Anybody with a television or radio heard the hurricane was approaching almost a week in advance. Residents had time to play "What if?" and decide whether to evacuate or stockpile food and water. Hourly weather reports narrowed the path of the wily storm‘s target.
The storm passed, and out-of-state response teams returned home. Soon, after-action reports will offer lessons learned for improvements before the next call out. Already Louisiana State Fire Marshal B. “Butch” Browning has offered insight on two areas: pre-hurricane communications and care of incoming response teams.
A former fire chief, Browning became state fire marshal five months ago and immediately assessed the fire departments in the state — volunteer, combination and career — and their experiences with Katrina.
“During Katrina, the 200 fire marshal deputies had no pre-plan function emergency plans,” Browning said. “This time we changed that and our deputies were assembled into response teams to provide medical and rescue and assistance to firefighters in local communities.”
Three days before Hurricane Ike, Browning assigned 60 deputies to touch base with every local fire chief and preparedness director in what they anticipated would be the affected parishes.
“We did it for three reasons: first, to establish a line of communication; second, re-remind them of the process to request state assets, and third, to let them know we were going to be there before, during and after the storm to check on them,” he said. “It built the confidence that if they needed state assistance, they knew somebody was carrying the responsibility for the fire service to get what they needed.”
Based on input from those departments, the state fire marshal‘s office determined it needed 450 firefighters — 200 firefighters to backfill the big cities and the remaining to support volunteer and combination departments. Browning advised fire departments to move their equipment from low-lying areas. “I think we maybe lost only one or two pieces of apparatus, mainly because of response,” he said.
Browning sent an Emergency Management Assistance Compact request for an incident management team from New York City. In addition, 200 New York firefighters and 260 Illinois task force members with equipment responded.
“We deployed about 80% of those firefighters within a day and a half of their arrival," Browning said. "There wasn‘t a single request that we didn‘t fill with in-state or out-of-state firefighters within hours of request."
Browning also committed to improving the care and feeding of incoming response units. As with any disaster, blocked roads, downed power lines and flooding prevented food and water from reaching some of the incoming response teams. While the incoming units are prepared to self-sustain for 72 hours, time spent for re-assignments and deployment holds can eat through their provisions quickly.
Browning gave a lot of credit to the local fire chiefs that communicated with the fire marshal‘s emergency operations center.
“Fire chiefs know what they need to do,” he said. “What fire chiefs need is someone on the state level who can give them the resources when they need them and as quickly as they can and that‘s exactly what this fire marshal‘s office has done.”