Twenty years before Hurricane Katrina, former U.S. Deputy Fire Administrator Charlie Dickinson and others advocated the importance of developing a dependent care program. They wrote: "During a storm or disaster event, firefighters will be concerned for their families. They want to know they're safe, reassure and help them. They have to do it at a time that as a first responder their services are needed more then at any other time by the community. Yet their thoughts may not be on the job but with their family. The chances for poor performance, an accident — or even abandonment of duty sharply increase."
That statement is as true today, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, as it was then. When weather causes severe damage and prompts evacuations, first responders face a dilemma: job or family. Fire departments ask their members to leave their families at the most demanding — and potentially life-threatening — times of their lives. The problem is compounded when the department recalls off-duty personnel to supplement staffing during catastrophic situations for potentially days or weeks. Spouses often feel like single parents, left to face the impending crisis alone.
The Santa Barbara (Calif.) Fire Department first developed a dependent care program back in the 1970s, following a spate of structural and wildland fires. As the program evolved, the department learned that it had to do more than simply update on-duty personnel of their family's welfare. The program had to teach families to be self-sufficient during a firefighter's absence. The goals of the program ultimately expanded into the following:
- To relieve the anxiety of on-duty firefighters by developing a program for their families that encompasses pre-event training and procedures for post-event verification of the family's safety.
- To provide study materials and classroom instruction in disaster preparedness for department family members.
- To ensure that on-duty firefighters realize their responsibilities to the citizens of Santa Barbra.
A dependent care program that works for one department may not work for another. Some jurisdictions have developed phone trees; others have open emergency shelters dedicated only to first-responder families.
The Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills (Mass.) Department of Fire-Rescue & Emergency Services, or C-O-MM Fire, is a small agency that depends on the recall of off-duty firefighters for. Following major storms that created staffing issues, the agency added a dependent-care appendix to its disaster plans. The policy allows families of department personnel to use department facilities as an emergency shelter during storms.
"The department will be used to house the immediate families of department personnel only during the event or when people are at risk," the guideline states. "Once the event is over, and it is safe to travel, those requiring shelter for an extended period of time will be transferred to a designated emergency shelter."
The guideline includes specific language where families are allowed. They do not have "free run" of the fire stations.
Thealso has emphasized the need for depended-care planning. It advocates that departments:
- Ensure all members have a personal family plan to secure their family and property in preparation for reporting to duty.
- Establish a family contact number that family members can call to check on a department member.
- Encourage friends or family members to evacuate outside of the storm's impact area.
- Encourage members to periodically contact their families.
recommends that families have an emergency kit and supplies to be self-sufficient for three days. Local departments should do the same internally. Millions of dollars have been spent to prepare, mitigate, plan, purchase equipment, and improve responses, but departments can't provide advanced life support if the basic levels of care are not being met.
Define the point at which the department can no longer put first responders in harm's way. For emergency services, the idea of not responding to calls for help is foreign. But fire leadership has to acknowledge that conditions do exist in which it is no longer safe to respond — that it no longer is business as usual.
Many departments have disaster plans that may work for 24 to 72 hours, but how many are prepared for days or weeks of response and recovery? C-O-MM Fire has recognized that a major incident can last longer than a tour of duty — and that a catastrophic event might not come with advanced warning. To ensure preparedness, the department now stocks water, canned goods, and MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).
D. Brady Rogers is a captain/shift commander with the Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills (Mass.) Department of Fire-Rescue & Emergency Services. A 35-year fire-service veteran, he's been responsible for pre-incident and disaster planning within his department. He holds a master's degree in public administration, is an Executive Fire Officer Program graduate and an accredited Chief Fire Officer.