18 May 2012
Throughout time the coordinated efforts of groups of people trained in disaster relieve have varied widely in the scope of what kind of assistance they could offer. Historically these individuals would merely block the road and send people away from the affected area until it was safe for them to return and attempt to salvage whatever they could from the ruins of their now former homes and begin the tedious process of reconstructing their lives.
As societies grow and evolve there events that constantly threaten them and may even in some cases cause their extinction. Such things as earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, fires, volcanoes and plagues just to name a few of the naturally occurring problems ever looming in the background. Also, we should not forget other societies encroaching, raiding resources, and outright conquering of territories, and all the mayhem and disorder that comes with it. It has been mankind’s struggle over the centuries to get a handle on both the natural and man-made disasters and the problems they create.
These days’ communications move at the speed of light and this improvement has greatly increased our ability to respond quickly when the need arises. One of the biggest problems that have plagued those people willing to step in and risk their own life trying to help others has been communication. For most of the history of mankind important things like messages reporting on the situation and maps showing what is going on where had a finite speed and that speed was very very slow. Usually only as fast as a man could run or a horse could carry him, in most disasters that’s just not fast enough to save lives. It’s only today with all of our advanced radio, cellular, and satellite communications are we finally able to effectively transfer information back and forth from the site of the event to the command center, then from there to the services needed to be sent at the earliest opportunity to send them. It is within the advances of telecommunications the science of Emergency Management is born.
For example, a fifteen year old boy and his friends are playing basketball when he collapses, his friends knowing he has a serious asthma condition, realizing that he is having great difficulty breathing make a mad dash for the police department located in the park where they’re playing. They burst through the doors of the station and begin explaining to the dispatcher at the desk what was happening. The dispatcher hearing the boy’s story punches a couple of buttons on phone and he’s immediately connected to the fire department across the street from the park. He explains the situation to the Fire Department’s Lieutenant, who immediately sends two EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) sprinting from their station to the basketball courts a half a block away.
While he’s doing this the dispatcher has moved one of the powerful security cameras on to the boy lying on the court, he begins reporting to the Lieutenant, that the boy appears to be motionless. The dispatcher has also used the radio to summon his units to assist the EMTs & Firefighters with crowd control. He also used a digitally secure connection to inform his Shift Commander of the serious nature of the situation. By this time the EMTs are on the scene and sirens from the ambulance and fire truck can be heard as they race to assist their comrades. From the camera view the EMTs appear to be struggling while working on the boy as he remains unresponsive. The problem is that his airway is so blocked they can’t get air in with normal cpr and assisted breathing. The fire band radio crackles as an EMT gasps out orders for additional gear to be brought from the newly arrived ambulance. All the EMTs and Firefighters from the station are now on scene, and working in an organized effort to save the boy. The action is furious as they work, they all know that time is critical in these situations, yet all they seem to try is for naught.
The decision is made for an escorted trip to the local hospital three miles away. So two city police cars and one from the park district will escort the ambulance in a mad dash for the hospital where it might still be possible to save the boy. The police will keep two squads ahead blocking traffic while one stays with ambulance adding a second pair of eyes to aid in the ambulance’s progress. Sirens wailing away and lights flashing in all directions as this last chance for life effort begins. By now the surrounding towns have all heard over their radios what’s been happening. The towns that the emergency convoy will travel through begin to take steps to assist with their progress. The normally noisy radio is eerily quiet as officers are holding back to allow the convoy’s transmissions priority on their trip. The transmissions from the squads are fast and emotionally intense as officers fueled by adrenaline trade off blocking streets. Quick progress is made and the group reaches the hospital.
The hospital having received phone calls from both the police and fire departments is ready and a path to the ER has been cleared. An emergency room doctor and staff await the ambulances arrival. The boy is rushed in where the doctors and nurses go to work. Yet even at the hospital where even more technics and technology can be brought to bear, the situation shows no sign of improvement. In the end all efforts are to no avail, sadly the young man is pronounced dead at the hospital.
The effort to save the boy required the use of seven Firefighter/EMTs, five police officers, two dispatchers and additional police support from two towns, plus the doctors, nurses and support staff at the hospital. Everyone involved putting forth their best effort, including extraordinary means, that in the end all the valiant efforts still couldn’t save the young man’s life. Situations like this are daily occurrence somewhere in the U.S. where police and fire department’s combine efforts to try to save lives. Without good communications equipment such attempts dangerous as they are would be even more so if there were no radio or phones to notify people of wants going on and what they can do to assist.
Now imagine for a minute that there are thirty people in serious condition, three hundred more with injuries, and unaccounted for masses possibly still trapped in a natural disaster that is underway. This is all another day on the job in the field of Emergency Management. It is a concept conceived by colleges working with agencies of the federal government. The idea is to promote inter-agency coordination and cooperation during times of large scale emergencies while providing federal and private organization assistance.
When the average person thinks of emergency services they think of Police and Fire departments. For a long time that was what was available to people unless the local National Guard stepped in to provide further assistance. Police and Fire departments have borne the brunt of societies biggest disasters for a long time now. The modern Police Department came into being in 1829 when Sir Robert Peel then the Prime minister of England convinced the English Parliament to pass his Metropolitan Police Force Act of 1829 through this modern Policing was born and many of the original precepts still exist today thanks to the efforts of men like August Vollmer, the father of modern policing in the United States. For the Fire department their founding father was a man by the name James Braidwood when in 1824 he established the first modern fire house in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the time communications were primitive, watchman on streets for the police and watchmen in towers for the fire fighters. Modern ambulance service started about 1830 in Spain using carts both human and horse powered. Since their creation these fundamental stalwarts of society have done their very best to trying and keep a handle on the natural disasters that have befallen the areas they’re responsible for. Sadly though, it had been evident for awhile that there needed to be an over-seeing agency to help coordinate the valiant efforts of local public safety units with an agency that can bring into an area additional support and supplies tailored to the situations as they develop or after they’ve passed.
It is in response to this need that organizations like F.E.M.A. (or Fema) the Federal Emergency Management Agency were created to help with efforts to supply an area with such important things as electrical power to key centers such as hospitals, schools, government buildings or areas where emergency shelters have been set up. They also can provide those shelters if none exist due to the total devastation of an area. They can also supply food, potable water, clothing and by coordinating with local National Guard units services like additional security for areas and air cover for emergency medical transport and the like.
FEMA was founded in 1979 during that time the communication systems they used although state of the art then are now obsolete. Back then they had teletype machines that noisy typewriter like machine that could transmit simple typed documents over the air much like modern fax machines do today accept they were transmitted one keystroke at a time. They also had ship to shore radios that are basically small low powered shortwave radio that could be mounted into vehicles or boats, and early chunky extremely low powered hand held walkie talkies.
These days almost all the old gear is no longer used. The exception being radios, the radio both portable and mounted has proven repeatedly their value in emergency situations. The radio is even more valuable than a cellphone in a disaster. As long as its battery keeps going the radio can keep transmitting. Loose the cell towers and no amount of charge is going to get a cell signal out beyond its mile transmit radius and you could find yourself in trouble. Today’s radios are also considerably better than those of the 70’s. They’re smaller and lighter in weight and can run up to eight hours on a single charge as opposed to their older counterparts. Today’s radio can transmit as high as 6 watts for extended periods, when they used to be only 2 watts. Vehicle radios have also improved in quality over their predecessors, including the use of a repeater to boost car transmitters as high as 100 watts giving an effective range of up to 25 miles. Also repeaters can boost the signals of portable radios near them allowing a portable the same range as the “in car” unit. Computers can also be run off of a radio this allows images like maps and photographs to be sent quickly between the people in the field and the command centers, allowing real-time monitoring of situations as they unfold to send help where it’s needed and rapid information gathering and deployment of resources in the aftermath.
Of course any radio is only as good as the person who uses it. Every department out there has some form of training to teach their new hires how to effectively use the radio. As an example according the 2010 Manual for Dispatch Personnel of the Memorial Park District Police Department states;
Speak clearly and at a moderate speed. Giving information too quickly will cause potentially important information to be lost. Remember, frequently officers are trying to listen to you while having other people (Subjects, Victims, Officers) talking to them and they’re contending with other sounds (traffic, music, the radio) around them as well. (chap. Reading Back 27’s & 28’s)
Some of the biggest obstacles that people have had to deal with over the years with communications equipment has been both the limitations of the gear and ability of the operators. These days though, new technologies are in use by Fema and other Public Safety agencies to assure that when local services are down they can continue not only to function and in most cases offer assistance to the down agencies. Fema does this through Mobile Recovery Disaster Centers. These are essentially mobile homes (the RV type) that have been outfitted with the latest in satellite technology they provide both phone service (multiple lines) and internet access as well, this allows people in effective areas to make calls, go to websites and aid in the process of helping themselves. In fact the MRDC has generators on board that will also allow it to power an additional structure besides the MRDC itself. This allows FEMA the ability to better organize its efforts and more effectively assist people, by bringing everything they need with them. The states themselves have a limited number of similar vehicles some designated for similar roles as the one used by Fema, and additional units are available as part of the state’s National Guard communications units.
The MRDCs are the frontline tools that FEMA uses when it’s time to mobilize. They are sent out through the Logistics Management Directorate, a division of FEMA that decides what type of equipment is needed and how much of it needs to go. The LMD dispatches not only the MRDCs they also send shelters, emergency food rations, and medical supplies to areas they deem in need. LMD can also issue satellite based phones that can be used not only by FEMA but by other organizations that FEMA’s representatives deem in need of the technology. The recent technological boost to FEMA allows for them to better re-act to problems for example this is an excerpt from the FEMA report on the Greensburg tornado of 2007;
Response to Kansas Tornadoes… Limited access remains for the city of Greensburg. A curfew has been set which begins at dusk.
The state reports fatalities are now at 11 with approximately 100 injured.
Most citizens in the city of Greensburg lost their homes. The exact number of businesses damaged… is not known at this time. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is participating on the Preliminary Damage Assessments (PDAs) that began on May 6… due to the severity of the tornado.
Two American Red Cross (ARC) shelters are in operation. On the morning of May 5 the reported population was 78.
The entire water and electrical power system for Greensburg is shut down. Emergency generators are providing power for incident command, emergency communications, and lighting. The hospital was severely damaged. All three schools (elementary, middle, and high-school) were severely damaged or destroyed. The school year has been terminated. A fuel terminal in Great Bend (Barton County) was destroyed.
The Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) and incident support team arrived at Greensburg on the evening of May 7, 2007. Force protection and security support is being provided at staging areas and during tactical search and rescue operations. The US&R logistics support push package being deployed from Logistics Center (LC)-Ft Worth. Water and MRE’s are already on site. FIRST satellite and cellular phones are activated. The base of operations is set up for the task force and incident support team.
Land lines are down in Greensburg with limited cell phone availability. 911 communications are being provided by a Kansas Department of Transportation vehicle. A mobile low frequency transmitter has been sited near the 911 temporary communications center. The Kansas National Guard Mobile Incident Command Vehicle is on site, as well as the Kansas department of transportation Communications-On-Wheels (COW) to assist in restoration of communications systems.
Sprint has established a portable cell phone tower and unit in Greensburg.
At 1000 CDT May 9, the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) at Barclay college in Havilland will open. This will be a full-service DRC with SBA, Red Cross, crisis counselors, State’s Dept of Revenue and Vital Statistics to assist with driver’s license, identification documentation replacement and other support…
As you can see from the report in their initial set-up the responding agencies began to install temporary communications as soon as they could. In this case, along with the set-up of the satellite communications, the state of Kansas and the Kansas National Guard sent additional communications equipment. Sprint and American company was tapped to install and operate a temporary emergency cell tower in the town to allow for greater accessibility for people and the responding agencies to get calls out and help in. Also low watt transmitters were also set up at the temporary site for the Greensburg 911 call center as well as the National Guard units sent to assist with recovery. The additional radios allow for better communication especially between the 911 call center and its units who are used to radios as their primary communications tool.
These days the types, styles, and manufacturers of these advanced communication tool are constantly changing, though industry giants like Motorola, Quaalcom, Kenwood, are still in the game. There are new companies throwing their hats in the ring all the time. The newest technological advancements get pushed into the emergency responders circles as fast as they’re available.
Perhaps, more than any other advancement in the field of emergency services, its communications that allow for more people to be effectively helped as the need arises. Beyond what is used by agencies like FEMA, there are new communication devices in use in Police and Fire Departments that assist with everything from remote fingerprinting to providing emergency room doctors the opportunity to have input at the sites where EMTs are working. The end result is that now more than ever lives are being saved when in the past they would have been lost. As all of these technologies change it will be the people in emergency management that will lead the way in implementing the changes and assisting in making sure that everyone that needs to, knows how they work.
All this work and effort has its pay-offs in lives saved. Today’s advanced communications make the world a smaller and faster responding place. Even when all efforts seem to have no beneficial effect there is the Father of the boy who came into station just hours after his son passed away who after hearing from the boy’s friends about the efforts made on behalf of his son, wanted to take the time to thank those who put forth the effort trying to save his son. While choking back tears he also wanted them to know that the doctors had been telling him and his son for years that something like this could happen, they knew risks and that he was blessed for the time they had together.
“Robert Peel: Biography.” Spartacus Educational.N.p., n.d. Web 3 December 2011.
“James Braidwood: Biography.” The Gazetteer of Scotland. The editors of the Gazetteer of Scotland.
Edinburgh. University of Edinburgh. Web ©2011. 30 April 2012.
Wiegand, Martin J. “Reading Back 27’s & 28’s” The Official Memorial Park District Police Department Manual for Dispatch Personnel 2010. Bellwood, Self-Published 01 July, 2010. 2 May 2012
“Mobile Recovery Disaster Centers” FEMA VIDEOS, Office of Homeland Security.
Washington D.C. Webcast. 03 May 2012. Web. http://www.fema.gov/medialibrary/collections/944
“National Situation Update: Wednesday, May 9 2007.” Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Washington D.C. 10 May 2012. Web. http://www.fema.gov/emergency/reports/2007/nat050907.sthml