I'm finding it very difficult to pull my thoughts away from the post-apocalyptic images of Haiti pervading the airwaves, newspapers and Internet. I'm sure I'm not alone. Once again, as with so many disasters in recent memory, the American fire and emergency services were on the front lines. I watched the local news with pride as many of my friends deployed with/U.S. Agency of International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance Virginia Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. They were joined by colleagues from around the U.S. and the world in a desperate bid to rescue some of the many thousands of people trapped and injured in the earthquake's rubble.
Now, with the international rescue teams back home and the long-term recovery under way, the headlines and breaking news banners are, perhaps inexorably, changing to more mundane concerns. By the time you read this column, will the horrible tragedy befalling the Haitian people already be an historical footnote?
I think it's all too easy for us to see what happened in Haiti and say, "that could never happen in my community." Really? Did you know that in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service, close to 75 million people in 39 states face some risk of earthquakes? To be sure, conditions in Haiti before the January 2010 quakes already were dire, with many people living in extreme poverty and in ramshackle structures that could barely defy gravity, much less the 7.0-magnitude temblor that struck the island on Jan. 12. While I'm in no way trying to make a direct comparison, just consider how many people in your community are under terrible financial stress and living in buildings vulnerable to severe structural damage from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, windstorms, wildfires, blizzards and myriad other natural or technological disasters.
Keeping in mind that structural fires still are a major problem in the U.S. — I'll save that topic for another month — and that many of us are struggling to meet our basic mission requirements, it seems like a good time to assess our involvement in the larger emergency management framework. If you're saying to yourself right now, "that's not my job," then I'm not making my point; whether you are a company or chief officer, or hold any other rank in a fire department, emergency management absolutely is part of your job.
It's probably not a stretch to assert that historically, firefighters are among the original emergency managers, particularly as fire-department missions evolved from basic structural firefighting to addressing a wide range of emergency (and non-emergency) situations and then to today's all-hazards fire and emergency services departments. The concept of emergency management as a specialized discipline also changed over the years from civil defense and wartime preparation, through a focus on managing natural and technological disasters, to becoming a cornerstone of the 21st-century homeland-security enterprise. Local emergency management authorities (LEMAs) exist in almost as many configurations as their fire department counterparts. LEMAs and local fire departments often have similar, and sometimes overlapping, charters, missions, and legal mandates.
Over the past decade — since 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and several other recent disasters — federal, state, and local governments significantly invested in building the capacity of LEMAs. While this certainly was a positive development for many communities, the unintended consequence is that some fire departments have distanced themselves from paying close attention to all the phases of emergency management: prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. In other cases, local fire chiefs, emergency managers and their colleagues in law enforcement, public health, hospital, and other disciplines joined together in cooperative efforts to not only increase theircapabilities, but also to address prevention, mitigation, preparedness and recovery goals. In some places, once-successful cooperative efforts across jurisdictions and disciplines have succumbed to the old patterns of organizational turf protection, image (as opposed to emergency) management, and ego-based decision-making, especially as fiscal times get tougher and grant monies ever more scarce. Yet, together with our colleagues in other disciplines, we continue to face threats of every description, from influenza pandemics, to international and domestic terrorism, to the full spectrum of daily disasters.
Whatever situation your fire department faces today regarding its engagement, or lack thereof, with the LEMA and other partner agencies, the strategic implications of a systemic failure to collaboratively address comprehensive emergency management principles is glaringly obvious in the news footage we've all seen from Haiti. So here's the big question: Can you really sit back and say, "that's never going to happen here?" How soon we forget.
Adam K. Thiel is fire chief for the city of Alexandria, Va. He is a former executive director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, deputy fire chief of the Goodyear (Ariz.) Fire Department and career lieutenant with the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department.
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