While you're hunkered down trying to shelter yourself from 150mph winds that are tearing the roof off of your home, and torrential rains that are creating knee-deep flooding all around you, thinking about how to manage a wildland fire is probably the last thing on your mind.
Yet, during Florida's now infamous “Storms of '04” that's exactly what members of the Florida Fire Chiefs' Association's Statewide Emergency Response Committee did. From Aug. 13 until Oct. 7, Florida became paralyzed by the devastation of four extremely destructive hurricanes. Not since 1896 had the U.S. mainland seen such a catastrophic event. However, the state's emergency response system was able to manage the catastrophe almost as if it were just another day at office.
The success of the response to these deadly storms was by no means luck or just great timing. Rather, it was the result of years of diligent planning, multi-level coordination and practice, all brought to bare in a span of only a few short weeks.
History of SERP
In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew tore through Southern Dade County, leaving a path of death and destruction and creating the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Help for the victims of Andrew came in many forms, from many places, and often in unmanageable quantities. It wasn't long before local agencies realized how inadequately prepared they were for the level of devastation or the coordination and management of the hundreds of well-meaning volunteers who flooded south Florida in Andrew's aftermath.
Soon after Andrew had passed, the Florida Fire Chiefs' Association started to design a plan that would allow local agencies to request mutual aid during a major incident and to provide a coordinated and trackable system for deploying those resources in an orderly and manageable fashion. This may sound simple, but when you take into account the multitude of emergency service providers throughout Florida, the geographic obstacles of the Panhandle State, and the ability to get federal reimbursement in a timely manner, suddenly the picture gets very fuzzy.
To design their system, Florida's fire chiefs turned to the experts at managing large numbers of resources and specialty teams during emergency situations. The Division of Forestry's incident command system, the Florida Statewide Emergency Response Plan, identifies 17 separate functions that can provide needed resources during a major incident. Each emergency support function acts as an independent agency, coordinating and procuring requested services under its purview. Collectively, the ESFs are accountable to the incident commander.
Working within the system, the local incident commander can make a request for resources through a central clearinghouse, have them deployed quickly with task-specific assignments, and then demobilize them when the assigned tasks are complete.
For the system to be effective, coordination of the ESFs would have to come through a central point of contact. The Division of Emergency Management stepped up to the plate and created the State Emergency Operations Center, located in Tallahassee. Often referred to as “The House That Andrew Built,” the state EOC would serve as the focal point before, during and after an incident. Located within the center are a number of ongoing functions that operate on a day-to-day basis.
Warnings & resources
To stay informed of major incidents occurring in Florida, the DEM developed the State Warning Point. Anyone responding to an incident with potential multi-jurisdictional impact was encouraged to contact the SWP through an 800 number. Employees at the SWP record the incident into the state's “Tracker” computer system, which allows officials to stay abreast of potentially major incidents throughout the state and be prepared to act should the need arise. The SWP also monitors weather, news channels and emergency radio frequencies for any unreported potential incidents.
To maintain a state of readiness, the EOC defined three levels of activations in response to an incident. (See right.)
Level three, monitoring. The EOC maintains a level-three activation daily. The State Warning Point and other ongoing functions of the facility are staffed and it's business as usual.
Level two, impending incident. When a major event creates a blip on the SWP radar, a level-two activation is declared. Key ESF personnel, including the state emergency management director, are alerted and report to the center if needed.
Level one, major incident: During a level-one activation all operational personnel report to the EOC. Each ESF function is activated. The governor also may report to the center.
Florida's geography and large land mass would make statewide management of equipment and personnel virtually impossible. The SERC committee followed the Division of Emergency Management's plan and divided the state into seven geographic regions. The committee appoints a director, from each region, who is responsible for keeping records of equipment and personnel availability as well as which units could be deployed quickly.
Region Seven, the largest of the regions, extends from Martin County and the Port St. Lucie area at its northern border to Monroe County and Key West in the south. Due to its shape and dense population, the region is further classified as Regions Seven North and Seven South.
Due to the diversity in terminology and the wide variety of definitions within each of the ESFs, commonality of resources and like terminology had to be created. The plan allows for resources to be mobilized as a single entity, or in large groups.
A sole resource is a unique function or individual that serves a single purpose, such as a public information officer or dispatcher.
A strike team consists of five like items, such as a rescue strike team, engine company or strike team. With each strike team, a strike team leader, trained in ICS and team management is deployed.
A task force consists of five strike teams. This is any combination of teams.
A tracking system was designed in an attempt to avoid the freelancing fiascos that occurred during Andrew, maintain accountability and provide for efficient and timely reimbursement from.
When an incident commander makes a request for resources, the request is entered into Tracker and assigned a tasking number. Once a number is assigned, the request is assigned to the appropriate ESF and filled as required. When a unit is deployed, the team leader is provided with the tasking number. Coded within the number is a description of the event and the specific assignment that has been given. Units or teams responding to an affected area without an assigned tasking number will not be granted access and will not be eligible for reimbursement.
In 1995, the plan was awarded the www.FFCA.org.'s Fire Service Award of Excellence and in 1999 the American Society of Association Executives presented the SERP committee with its Summit Award, the Society's highest award for community service. The complete SERP plan can be viewed on the Florida Fire Chiefs' Web site at
So it begins
It was only fitting that Florida's worst nightmare would start on Friday the 13th. Hurricane Charley, which was headed on a dead-reckoning path for Tampa Bay, made an unpredictably sharp and sudden turn toward the east and entered the Port Charlotte — Punta Gorda area as a category-four storm. By nightfall the next day, while packing 145mph winds, Charley had cut a swath of death and destruction that extended from Port Charlotte on the west coast to Daytona Beach on the east.
And, almost before the winds died down, the FFCA SERP committee was in action. By 3:30 p.m. on that fateful Friday, the first of what would be many conference calls was held. An initial report to the SWP indicated that Charlotte Regional Medical Center had suffered a roof collapse, trapping several hundred patients, and a shelter, which was housing 1,200 evacuees, had been badly damaged.
By 7:30 p.m., a strike team of ALS ambulances (called rescues in Florida) was headed across Alligator Alley. In an ironic turn of events from 1992, teams from Dade, Broward, Monroe, Palm Beach and Martin counties were on the road headed for Charlotte County. Many of the personnel making up these teams had lived through Hurricane Andrew and as one firefighter commented, “We [were] simply returning the favor.”
Shortly behind the rescues were strike teams of engine companies and the Task Force 2 USAR team from Miami-Dade County. Their first assignment would be to perform primary grid searches of damaged areas, looking for the injured and recovering the dead.
By the afternoon press conference on Monday, Aug. 16, Charlotte County Emergency Manager Wayne Sallade announced primary searches had been completed and secondary searches were commencing.
As Charley exited Florida, additional regions were called on to deploy units into Charlotte, DeSoto and other affected counties. Since Andrew, Florida's emergency managers and incident commanders realized the need to relieve local responders as soon as possible after the storm so they can take care of their own homes and families. To achieve this, additional teams would be needed to staff fire stations and manage the increased call volumes that local 911 systems would endure.
Due to its powerful winds, Charley's destructive force presented difficult situations for local responders, emergency managers and deployed resources. When responders arrived in Charlotte they expected to see destroyed homes, downed power lines, toppled trees and localized flooding. However, what they encountered was well beyond what they could have imagined.
Effective mitigation of any large-scale incident requires a solid base of operations. During a regional event like a hurricane or wildfire, that base is usually the emergency operations center. However, Charley severely damaged the Charlotte County EOC. The converted warehouse, which also served as headquarters for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office, was now significantly compromised and reduced in useable size by one-third.
As well as the EOC being severely damaged and exposed to the elements, relief crews found fire stations missing roofs or collapsed and local fire-rescue personnel standing duty in their vehicles as the only source of shelter.
As part of the SERP plan, the Florida Association of Public Information Officers coordinates a state PIO deployment team. The team consists of fire, police and emergency management PIOs who are specially trained to handle media and public information issues during a catastrophic event.
During the wildfires of 1998, the state learned quickly how misinformation, or sluggishly disseminated information could have a profoundly negative impact on the recovery effort. In an attempt to get ahead of the media information demands of Charley, a lead team of PIOs was deployed directly to the Charlotte County EOC on Aug. 14. Additional PIOs were sent to DeSoto and Hardee Counties.
Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 event with a damage estimate of more than $6.8 billion, would later prove to be the most destructive and the costliest of the four storms. When the response was over, the deployment roster included six strike teams, two task forces, three USAR teams, three overhead teams, four logistics officers and 13 battalion chiefs. Specialty units numbered five dispatchers, 14 PIOs, 12 strike team leaders and three fire inspectors. In terms of equipment, mitigation of Charley required 81 engines, 85 rescues, five water tenders, one hazmat unit, seven MAC units, three mobile command posts and two chainsaw crews.
While picking up the pieces from Charley, completing paperwork and catching up on missed work back home, the next storm ripped through the northern tip of the Bahamas and parked itself off Florida's east coast. Hurricane Frances created damage and destruction that extended from Fort Lauderdale to Vero Beach.
Because of Frances' positioning and size, the SERP committee had difficulty moving deployed resources into the affected areas. Both Interstate 95 and the Florida Turnpike were impassable. Units from the resource-abundant Dade-Broward areas could not get past West Palm Beach, and supplies that were being shipped from out of state could not move south of Vero Beach. As a result, mitigation would be slow and tiresome. Supplies began to run low, and to make matters worse, fuel supplies also were drying up. Diesel fuel, essential for operating emergency vehicles, was almost non-existent, and gasoline, used to power generators for electricity and sewage lift stations, was running out. Even Florida Power and Light, the principal electricity provider for Florida, could not get repair parts shipped into the state because the primary arteries were impassable.
However, by conducting two statewide conference calls daily, diligently using the Tracker system and effectively keeping all ESF functions on task, the SERP committee and state DEM personnel slowly chipped away at the insurmountable mountain and began to mitigate Frances' damage. Within only a few short weeks, units began demobilizing and local responders returned to regular duty.
When the numbers were posted, Frances would record 23 deaths and nearly $4.5 billion in damage. Response teams included six USAR teams, 10 engines, 16 ALS rescues, four dispatchers and three PIOs.
Then, on Sept. 15, meteorologists from all over the world watched with amazement at a feat not rivaled since Hurricane Opal in 1995. Hurricane Ivan shredded the tip of Florida's Panhandle with sustained winds in excess of 165mph. Anticipating the seriousness of the storm and armed with the experience of the two previous events, a battle-weary SERP team saddled up for yet another round with Mother Nature's aftermath.
However, this one would be different. Not only were there issues of ice, water, electricity and structural damage to contend with, but for most deployed resources travel times would exceed eight to 10 hours. Anticipating such issues, the SERP committee staged units in the Tallahassee area prior to the storm making landfall, thereby reducing response times when the call for resources finally came.
Despite their efforts, travel to the Panhandle was treacherous at best. Trucks broke down, convoys got lost and resources were either misdirected or not accounted for. In addition, the few major access roads into the affected areas were either blocked, unnavigable, or wiped out altogether. The Interstate 10 Bridge into Escambia County, at the very tip of the Panhandle, was completely destroyed, making ground access into the area virtually impossible.
Due to its rural nature, many parts of Santa Rosa County were almost completely inaccessible. As a result of the storm surge, many of the barrier islands were buried under sand. Requests for backhoes, high-wheeled vehicles and air support were quickly added to the deployment list. USAR teams trudged through mountains of sand, mud and debris, searching the remains of buildings, homes and RVs for any signs of life.
Members of the SERP team would be called on to coordinate activities they never could have imagined. Because of accessibility issues, USAR teams were put in boats operated by the Florida Wildlife Commission to search coastal areas and barrier islands.
“These are ground forces,” says Chief Rick Talbert of Titusville Fire and Emergency Services, who helped coordinate efforts at the State EOC. “We put USAR teams in boats. Now that takes real coordination and team work.”
One for the history books
Just when it seemed like Florida had about all it could take and only days after crews demobilized from Hurricane Ivan, Hurricane Jeanne appeared on the National Hurricane Center's radar and, following the path of its big sister Frances, struck the east coast of Florida in almost exactly the same spot.
Unlike Frances, Jeanne was a smaller, faster-moving storm with maximum winds of less than 120yph. Despite its quick movement, Jeanne did play havoc on the coastline, virtually burying Hutchinson Island in sand and water.
One more time, without hesitation, firefighters and emergency responders from across the state packed their gear, said goodbye to loved ones, and headed for situations unknown. This time, however, crews arrived in St. Lucie, Palm Beach and Volusia counties ready, capable and knowing all too well what to expect.
While Jeanne would require the fewest resources of any of the four storms, it was no less damaging or exhausting to those who lived through it. Yet it wasn't long before the situation was well in hand. Within only a few days, crews were sent home.
The thought of controlling the movement of hundreds of personnel and dozens of pieces of apparatus over several hundred miles for more than eight weeks straight would set most military generals on their heels. Yet the Florida Fire Chiefs' Association, in cooperation with the State Division of Emergency Management, handled it with a precision that resembled marching band practice rather than an emergency deployment.
By using the state's Tracker system and effectively communicating with each regional director, requests were answered and massive numbers of resources and supplies were deployed over large areas in short periods of time.
When the final numbers were tallied, Florida's fire chiefs would have deployed 23 USAR teams, seven overhead teams, 15 logistics officers, 29 liaisons and 13 battalion chiefs. Specialty resources would total 29 dispatchers, 17 PIOs, 11 fire inspectors, and 14 strike team leaders. Equipment and logistics would tip the scales at 134 engines, 136 ALS rescues, 23 water tenders, 17 MAC units and five mobile command posts. In the end, more than 1,200 people would provide incalculable hours of service to the state's storm-ravaged communities.
Much like Andrew and the wildfires of '98, the Storms of '04 will be recorded as one of Florida's most tragic events. But through it all, local responders, backed by their brother and sister firefighters and supported by the Florida Fire Chiefs' Association and the State Division of Emergency Management, joined forces as one team to reduce the loss of life, minimize the overall damage and help restore order to the state of Florida.
Joel Gordon, RN, NREMT-P, has served as a battalion chief and public information officer with the Plantation (Fla.) Fire Department for the past eight years and was one of the original organizers of the department's EMS division. Gordon is also serving his third term as chair of the Florida Association of Public Information Officers. He is also a team leader with the State of Florida PIO Deployment Team.
EOC Activation Levels
In a full-scale activation, all primary and support agencies under the state plan are notified. The state emergency operations center is staffed by Division of Emergency Management personnel and all emergency support functions.
- Partial activation
This is a limited agency activation. All primary, or lead, emergency support functions are notified. The state emergency operations center will be staffed by Division of Emergency Management personnel and necessary emergency support functions.
- Monitoring activation
Notification will be made to those state agencies and emergency support functions who would need to take action as part of their everyday responsibilities. The state emergency operation center will be staffed with state warning point communicators and Division of Emergency Management staff.
Firefighting, SAR Deployments
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