In 2017 we’ve been counting a lot of unlucky stars, and based on most of the world’s agreement that our climate is changing, we should all be expecting more successive extreme weather events like we saw with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Factor in rising sea levels and the dangerous storm surge that all hurricanes cause, and communities that used to be safe are now highly vulnerable.
Of course, in every storm cloud there’s supposed to be a silver lining and we’ve already seen firsthand in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean how this has been true: an unprecedented deployment of formal and informal disaster responders and resources gave us a very public view of how communities can help other communities in meaningful ways. Despite the widespread destruction, the hurricanes have claimed just over 200 lives, and a lot of that, we believe, has to do with the effectiveness of emergency response carried out at the community level.
The purpose of this post is to share a few of the biggest and most basic lessons we’ve learned about designing, deploying and managing community-based response networks before, during and after a hurricane strikes. As you can imagine, everything depends on good communications.
1. Act Like The Hurricane’s Going To Hit Your Community Head On
We’re not saying panic — just be prepared for the worst case scenario. No matter how many warnings or mandatory evacuations are issued, people are going to play their chances and not leave when they probably should, so understanding a little about your community’s vulnerabilities and resources will go a long way in making sure you’re best prepared to give help when and where it’s needed. A few things to consider:
1. Where’s damage and flooding expected to be worst?
2. Where do the most vulnerable populations live?
3. What kinds of problems have happened in the past?
4. Know your own preparedness
While history is considered to be the best predictor of what’s possible in the future, our climate is changing and communities are, too. So try to think holistically, not getting fixated on only a few doomsday scenarios. It may be convenient to assume that the neighborhood on the hill isn’t at risk of flooding, but if that community’s surrounded on all sides by flooded neighborhoods, they will soon find themselves cut off from help as time goes on. Remember: Some of the hardest hit areas this year and last are experiencing 1,000 year flooding events. While extreme events are supposed to be rare, history can clearly be misleading.
If you live in a highly populated area, it’s very possible you have a range of emergency responders and resources available, including emergency medical services (EMS) providers, fire and police departments, a department of public health, hospitals and community-based organizations, like the community emergency response team (CERT) or civil protection.
If any or all of these responders exist, they will have plans and protocols to follow so it’ll be helpful to know what they are as best you can ahead of time. But things can change, too, and all resources eventually meet their limit: As the flooding from Harvey spread, Houston and Harris County’s 9-1-1 call centers became overwhelmed by calls requesting assistance, many of which were for non-life-threatening situations which had the potential to keep true life-threatening calls from getting through. Knowing the limits of formal resources is good info to have, so here’s a list of questions to help you figure this out:
1. What’s their mandate?
2. What type of resources do they have available and how much/many?
3. How will they be announcing information to the public?
Once you’ve gathered this information, you will have a much better idea of what resources are needed, and at what point local responders could get overwhelmed. This is important to know because it also likely represents the threshold between being seen as a nuisance by formal first responders and being seen as a blessing.
3. Recruit Responders and Resources to Fill Gaps
Recruitment is essential. Three questions will help you determine who’s the best suited for any response efforts:
1. Who are they?
2. What do they bring to the effort?
3. How long can they volunteer for?
In this day and age, a laptop with a good internet connection can take you very far in setting up an effective call center. But before setting one (or more) up, your first order of business should be making sure your call center is out of harm’s way and hooked up to a strong internet connection. After that, you’re going to need to identify and organize different staffing groups that your call center will communicate and coordinate between:
It’s often taken for granted, but the fact of the matter is that during the hurricane there’s not a lot going on from a response perspective — at least there shouldn’t be a lot going on. This is because potential risks are at their highest in the middle of the storm, and it’s just not a good idea to try to go out and help people when you have the greatest chance of going from hero to helpless and thus requiring twice the response effort — help for the person who originally requested it, and now help for you too. And we see this reality acknowledged during every major storm when local first response agencies announce they are staying in place, out of harm’s way, so they’ll be in the best position to help when the storm has passed.
For the same reasons we recommend not offering assistance during the storm, instead focusing your efforts on gathering as much information as possible from reliable sources about the progress of the storm in order to anticipate where assistance is going to be needed most when it passes.
Regardless of what the underlying emergency request is, effective dispatching should abide by the same structure for every response. What differs is the resources required to carry out a successful response. If your dispatch structure is well-designed, and your response team’s roles and responsibilities are organized well, you’ll be able to account for differing resource demands within the course of response activities.
Included here is the standard dispatch sequence used in most emergency response efforts:
Someone needing assistance contacts the call center; the Dispatcher obtains pertinent information regarding location, nature of complaint, and severity of the situation (i.e., life-threatening vs. non-life-threatening)
The Dispatcher broadcasts the information taken from the caller to available Responders in the area informing them, at a minimum, of the location and nature of the incident; only the nearest and most appropriate Responders and Resources should be assigned, making sure that redundancy is avoided (i.e,. avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen)
The Responder(s) indicate that they have arrived on-scene and located the patient; upon arrival Responders should also be informed of additional Responders that will be supporting them, when possible
The Responder(s) assess the scene to identify any risks to their safety or that of others, and then determine if additional resources are needed based on ability to manage the incident, severity of the beneficiary’s condition, and any obstacles to extrication and/or evacuation
If necessary, and where possible, Responders provide or arrange for transport to an appropriate destination – e.g., a hospital, evacuation shelter, friends/family residence, dry ground etc. Ideally, advanced notification will be sent to the destination facility. At the least, Responders should be prepared to move the victim out of harm’s way.
To ensure maximum efficiency and avoid redundant dispatching, the Responder(s) indicate that their participation has ended when the response is complete. This will ensure accountability for the Responders and Beneficiaries, and proved a way for family members and other authorities to track individuals in the coming days
There are a lot of ways that dispatching can be delivered, but from experience we can tell you that some solutions are better than others. In fact, we feel so strongly about the quality of dispatch solutions out there that we developed our own — the Beacon dispatch platform, an open source software developed by Trek Medics with support from Vision Point Systems, Google.org and Twilio.org — but for those interested in exploring other solutions, here are a few principles to keep in mind:
The 2017 hurricane season has been one of the most devastating in recent memory, but it’s also been one of the most inspiring. And if we’re to expect that it’s just the start of more like it, then at-risk communities are going to become more pro-active in their preparations and response efforts — and we think that’s a great thing. Despite the fact that Hurricane Harvey was the single largest mobilization of federal resources in the United State’s history, when push came to shove, it was the local communities that did the most heavy lifting.
This post is our attempt to help communities prepare to mobilize and respond using their own resources, based on our direct experiences and lessons learned from community-based response efforts. We don’t pretend to know everything, though, so we invite you to share your own experiences in the comments section below if we can improve this post in any way. With enough support, we’ll be able to help communities bridge the gap (not to mention the floodwaters) until in those critical hours and days immediately after the storm passes, before formal resources are back online and in place.