I dislike the feeling of not knowing what to do first in an emergency all the while knowing people are relying on me. In comparison, I love being able to help others do their best job possible in a disaster. I think this is why I am so very passionate on helping others make a difference in disasters. We all (at least us honest ones) secretly have the question deep inside, will I do the right thing when all is falling apart?
A couple of years ago I had planned a date night with my husband who was flying back home from a trip. At that time, I was pregnant and feeling very tired and nauseous. So I wasn’t feeling my best, but decided to go ahead with the plans. I was to meet him right after work at the airport as a surprise.
Dressed up, check. Restaurant picked out, check. Severe weather in the forecast…? Unfortunately check. Okay, weather monitoring begins. I can handle this, I thought. Then, my plans fell apart with three strikes.
Strike 1– First was the manure truck and train disaster. Thankfully growing up in farm country, I was accustomed to manure and dealt with large manure spills on the job. I pulled out my trusty flood boots which served a double purpose that day. They even went great with my dress clothes! I knew severe thunderstorms were in the forecast so while handling the train emergency, I was also keeping an eye on the radar and checking in with the National Weather Service (NWS). With the news of torrential downpour just minutes away I announced everyone needed to immediately take cover in their vehicles.
Strike 2 – In the midst of all that, I received a call of flooding at one of the hospitals thanks to a massive deluge of rain, courtesy of the incoming thunderstorm. One of the staff members came to handle the train and truck situation while I went over to the hospital. Looking up in the air I saw my husband’s airplane flying overhead getting ready to land. Yeah. . . . not going to surprise him at the airport this time I lamented.
Strike 3 – At this point, I’m checking on the flooding at the hospital and the surrounding storm damage. Then I get a call that the same storm in a different town had caused serious flooding. It was time to hit the road again and meet up with the rest of the staff.
Needless to say, date night was definitely cancelled and I was now an extremely dirty, hungry and tired pregnant woman. After everything settled down, we realized great things came from that experience. Because of amazing staff knowing their purpose and roles, the team divided and conquered. The partners we collaborated with tackled these problems head on and were great to work with. That experience also confirmed I was taking the right steps not only with our team but also in preparing for weather events.
If you have not read my previous post on being proactive with weather, you may want to check it out first so these next steps to prepare for potentially severe weather will make sense. Though I mainly refer to severe thunderstorms in this process, with tweaking, this easily is applicable to tornadoes, flooding, and hurricanes.
So let’s say the Storm Prediction Center is predicting enhanced risk for severe thunderstorms. Possibly you already had a conference call with the NWS to discuss the storm’s timing and risks.
So what are your next steps?
1) Tell Your Contacts
In this instance these are your partners and any critical organizations or infrastructure. How do you know who that it is? Here is my litmus test, if this partner or organization would be out of commission because of the severe thunderstorm/tornado and it dramatically increases the “Oh Crap” factor, then I need to consider it. Here is a list that I would start with to send out your email:
- Other Emergency Managers (if at a regional, state or county level)
- 911 Center Supervisor
- Sheriff/Police Chief
- Public Works/Highway
- Electrical Co-ops/Power Companies
- Fire Departments
- Chief Elected Official
- Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters or your Volunteer Partners
- EOC Personnel
If you feel this is too many people to notify, consider breaking it into two lists. The first can be the critical “heads up” list and the second list is if the weather event has potential for needing EOC resources and personnel.
In the weather email, list the type of storm, expected time range, possible impacts, and actions to take (such as check staffing levels, review local plans, check what community events are scheduled).
Not only do you want to let your partners know in the email the action needed, but also ask them in return what will they be doing to prepare. Also, ask your partners if their community or organization has any special events planned. This information provides good situational awareness, especially if your boss checks in and is seeking an update.
Depending on your role, you may want to request notification for any damage or complications from the storm. The goal of this email is not only to notify but start the two-way communication process. This step is crucial in setting the expectation for your partners to notify you of damage instead of finding out on the local TV station.
At the end of my email I put the disclaimer “This information is for your agency internal coordination”. Otherwise I would receive emails requesting to add various unrelated persons to the email list. Sorry, but that is not the email’s purpose.
Check in with your point of contact for your Amateur Radio Emergency Services or other storm spotter group on what actions the group will be taking. If you are unsure what storm spotter group covers your area check out this website and click on your area.
Finally, I would post a message on the county’s Facebook and Twitter page about weather concerns for that day. A Facebook account set up to automatically post to Twitter is a great time saving option if you are not a social media person. In future posts I will discuss how you can realistically integrate social media into your program. Social media is our new outreach campaign and is very crucial for the public to hear the message in their preferred medium. Until my post check out idisaster 2.0 by Kim Stephens for more ideas.
2) Monitor and Listen
After you finished your notifications it is time to set up shop at work, home or even if you are out doing errands. This is the waiting time before the storm comes, but it can be very valuable.
Pull up your websites or the apps you would need to access during the storms such as radar, NWS Chat, agency notification and warning systems, Facebook and Twitter. By monitoring the situation, you can quickly notify your partners with important updates if needed.
While in monitoring mode you are looking for the storm strengthening or weakening, storm reports, and a more accurate time of the storm’s arrival. Depending on the type of storm and your area, you may be answering questions from the media or your partners.
You might be thinking how realistic is all of this? I can attest it can be done if you set up your smart phone and/or tablet. Here are some real life examples. Because of the timing of one severe thunderstorm, my monitoring was done at home while trying to feed two toddlers, find something for myself to eat and doing laundry. I also have done monitoring in the car through conference calls with NWS and later my staff. And I have been grocery shopping with the family a few hours before a storm, checking my messages and radar as I grab some eggs.
3) Game Time – Get Ready
Now the severe thunderstorm will be on your turf in an hour. Depending on your agency’s policy and the severity of the storm possibly you set up shop at home, at the office or at your Communication/911 Center. Because of your first step of notifying your partners, hopefully you have an idea if there are major events going on.
First let’s talk about special events. If you have a special event going on in the path of a severe thunderstorm, what is your action? Can you call the event coordinator to check in? What can you coordinate from your home or when out and about it?
Do you have the ability to create a chat group or IM between yourself and critical partners on your smartphone? This could be other Emergency Managers, hospitals, Fire, Public Works, or Police. For some folks calling on the radio is easier, which is why locating yourself in the Communication/911 Center can place you in the hub of activity. No matter what, you just want to be in a place to receive information and give direction.
As damage reports are coming in, pass them along to National Weather Service according to their preferred method in your area. Damage reports are crucial in the weather forecast process. Damage and storm reports help NWS either continue, escalate, or deescalate the weather warnings.
Most of these events will have issues which can be dealt within an hour or so after the storm. But. . . . a handful of storms do go to the critical level. Because you have the mechanisms in place to monitor and receive damage reports, you are prepared to make a scene size-up.
Now you can answer the question “how bad is the damage”? Just know, that it can come to the point where the magnitude or number of damage reports forces your response to the next level by activating the EOC.
Practice How You Play
If you put this process into practice for severe thunderstorms, it will become second nature to you. Another bonus is if your garden variety thunderstorm quickly escalates, you will be ready to jump in. You know your partners, you have their cell phone numbers to check in and you can monitor from almost anywhere.
I would really love to hear what other steps you take?
Please share, I know others would love to learn from you.
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