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The First 48 Hours: Things to do When Disaster Strikes

The first 48 hours are critical when events escalate into a full-blown disaster. Here are some things to know about managing the response.

by Alan S. Brown

First responders usually measure events by hours. But sometimes incidents spiral out of control. A hurricane batters a coastal community. A river overflows the levee. An explosion levels an apartment complex. It may take days or even weeks to bring the situation under control.

The first 48 hours hold the key to managing natural disasters and major events. Other than a hurricane, where responders can predeploy, help on the first day is usually limited to local responders and – if damage is not too widespread – mutual aid partners. Initial containment will hinge on how well different crews work together.

By the second day, regional and state agencies have begun to arrive. How well responders mesh with these outside agencies and put new resources to use will establish how events play out over the coming days.

In some ways, calling the first 48 hours critical is arbitrary. Every step is critical, says Leonard Deonarine, Sr., vice president of emergency refinery and petrochemical response specialist Industrial Emergency Services LLC (Corpus Christi, Tex.). "If you mess up the first five minutes, you'll pay for it the first five hours," he says. "If you mess up the first five hours, you'll pay for five days. And if you mess up for five days, then you'll have to explain it in court for five years."

Yet Deonarine and other specialists all agree that long-term emergencies call for a fundamentally different response than ordinary events. Here are seven suggestions to guide planning:

Size Matters

Major disasters are not small incidents grown larger. They have a dynamic all their own. Command team members who have undergone baptism by fire uniformly recall how cascading events move faster than they ever imagined possible.

The first barrier for most responders is simply understanding what is happening. Most responders are used to eyeballing a situation. A major disaster could stretch for miles.

"In larger events, it's difficult to make a good assessment," says Tom Marlowe, a teacher at the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) in Emmitsburg, Md. "You have to plan how you will get the information you need. If you haven't trained and exercised for larger events, changes in reporting might confuse people and they may not understand how to report to command."

Larger events usually demand new skills. A flood, for example, might erode bridge abutments. "Where do you find folks who can answer whether a bridge is safe," Marlowe asks. "If you've done a good job assessing the risks, you know you'll need a structural engineer. It's a whole lot better finding those resources before you need them than at 3 a.m. on Saturday morning."

Another case in point is an evacuation. "They don't go two by two to the shelter you've assigned them," says Tom Olshanski, a U.S. Fire Administration spokesperson who also teaches at NETC. "It's more like that old electric football game where you'd line up the players and they'd vibrate all over the place. When you ask 20,000 people to leave for a long period of time, do they take food? Medications? What about the disabled and those in extended care? The list goes on and on."

Expect to Exhaust Your Resources

In 1992, Miami/Dade Fire Rescue believed it could handle anything. Then Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm whose winds reached 177 mph, wreaked $25 billion in damages in Florida.

"The destruction was so widespread, we didn't have enough resources to do an immediate search and rescue," recalls William A. Wagner III, who served in Miami at the time.

What happened after Andrew receded will sound familiar to anyone who ever worked a major scene. Fire crews and volunteers from Florida and around the nation jumped in to help. "Within a day or two, we had some pockets with more resources than we needed and others where there were none," says Wagner. "Eventually, we got organized."

Andrew sparked Florida to revamp its state disaster plan. It divided the state into regions, and encouraged counties and cities to sign mutual aid agreements. Only a handful failed to comply. Florida can now allocate police, fire, and EMS as well as utility, public works, health care and emergency management resources from each region to any disaster site.

That is especially important to Wagner, who now heads fire rescue in Islamorada, whose location on the Florida Keys makes it hurricane central. "We're able to maneuver our resources with complete control," he explains. "When Hurricane Georges struck the Keys in 1998, we were able to prestage 10 volunteer fire departments. When we requested help from Florida mutual aid, we received 25 additional fire companies, most within 12 hours."

Think Campaign, not Event

"Responding to a typical incident is like a sprint, where you just get out there and expend yourself," says Deonarine. "A campaign is a 26-mile marathon, and you have to pace yourself and prepare for the hills."

That starts with staging. There are no simple rules to help an incident commander decide whether to attack a problem or wait until he or she receives adequate resources. At the very least, leadership must understand what mutual aid they can count on and when it will arrive.

Marlowe recommends enforcing a policy that limits work to 12 hours. "The U.S. Navy did a whole lot of research in sleep deprivation and found people who are sleep-deprived make stupid decisions. That's obvious. Guys who work 20 hours, take a nap, and come back are working way too long." Still, he admits holding back crews is a difficult decision to make.

It takes money to support long-term operations. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emergency declaration will pay for 75 percent of response costs (states pay the other 25 percent) during the first 48 hours. It not only funds responder overtime, but the cost of front-end loaders and dump trucks, debris removal, power restoration, and street cleanup. FEMA also provides long-term grants to rebuild communities. But emergency managers should contact FEMA quickly to set the wheels in motion.

Health and Hygiene Are Paramount

Major disasters draw hundreds of responders. Someone has to feed and house them. Deonarine, a veteran of many campaigns, says the right food makes a difference when crews work long hours over several days.

"Meals should be balanced and prepared to help rebuild their energy level," he explains. "Certain things lay in your stomach like an anvil. You don't see football players eating hamburgers on the sidelines. They take energy drinks, shakes. Responders should be treated like any other professional athlete."

They also need places to shower and clean their equipment because hygiene is always an issue. Floods and other disasters may release chemicals from underground storage tanks and sewage from septic tanks. Without periodic showers and ongoing medical attention, exposure can lead to infections, rashes, and even hepatitis.

Critical incident stress is more problematic. "It can't be overlooked," Deonarine contends. "In a flood or mud slide, people are removing or searching for bodies for days on end. They may have to deal with a woman who lost her children. We may pretend it doesn't get to us, but it does."

Marlowe agrees. Larger organizations usually make counselors and pastors available, but smaller departments may not. "It's important to talk with mental health professionals in the area who know the people and the culture and ask their recommendations," he says.

Plan and Work Together

When terrorists crashed a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon on 9/11, responders in Washington, D.C., rushed south to support Arlington, Va., under a mutual aid agreement. Meanwhile, responders from Prince Georges and Montgomery counties north of the capitol filled in for those who had gone to Arlington.

"We never practiced for anything this big," recalls Stephen M. Reid, a Myersville, Md., consultant and former D.C. battalion chief who helped man the operations center at the time. "But we worked within the incident command system structure on every run, from food on the stove to major fires, and so we were ready when the big one came."

It didn't happen by accident. Although no one ever envisioned an aircraft plunging into the Pentagon, the 17 jurisdictions surrounding Washington planned, exercised, and worked together under a unified incident management system. Commanders knew each other's strengths and limitations. Responders shared similar terminology. Everyone listened to the same chain of command.

The latter is especially important in emergencies that sprawl across jurisdictions where each commander has the authority to act on his or her own, says Wagner. "You need a unified command to set priorities, identify resources, and assign them no matter who they belong to."

A hurricane, for example, will down electrical poles and wires that may cause electrocution or fire. Power companies think fixing them is a high priority, but incident command may have other priorities for utility crews.

Reach Out to Out-of-the-Box Partners

A disaster will shut down everyday operations of local government. That leaves many talented people, from building and electrical inspectors to administrators and librarians, with nothing to do during the response.

"Many of these people would love to be able to participate in an emergency facing the community," says Olshanski. "They can answer the phone, find forms, run a food bank, or help responders coming off the line. Communities should look beyond their first responders and ask their employees what they may be able to do."

Communities should also learn how to mobilize volunteer agencies, from the Red Cross and Salvation Army to ham radio operators. Many of these organizations not only feed and house victims, but take care of responders as well. When disaster trashes a community's infrastructure, their ability to bring in self-contained food, shower, and cleanup units makes a big difference.

Not all volunteers are organized. After 9/11, Reid recalls receiving a phone call for a woman with a Class A commercial driver's license who offered to drive a heavy truck. She was just one of hundreds of volunteers that offered to help or just showed up unannounced.

Communities may incur liabilities if they put volunteers to work, says Marlowe. FEMA suggests funneling them into existing volunteer organizations. Whether they prove helpful or a nuisance depends on how well the command team channels their energy into useful work.

Donations may also become an issue. Marlowe recalls working a flood in West Virginia. "People collected stuff and brought it to the disaster site. We had one corner of the high school gymnasium piled with clothes. They were well meaning people, but much of it was not useful. We had to devote resources to managing it and then dispose of it afterwards."

Marlowe recalls receiving fur coats in Florida. "We laugh at that, but that's the kind of stuff that happens." He suggests responders get out ahead of the problem by encouraging donations to the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other charitable organizations.


A large event brings the national media, and they are simply not very responsive to the needs of local responders. Unlike local press and radio, which rely on responders for bread and butter crime and fire stories, the national media show up, do interviews, and leave.

They also pounce on contradictions, so it is important that the entire command speak with one and only one voice. "If they all are saying different things on TV, then the perception is that they don't know what they're doing," says Marlowe. Because it undermines their credibility, citizens may not listen to evacuation notices and other instructions.

Communication is also important for responders themselves. These men and women have left family and loved ones behind for days at a time, says Olshanski. The same emergency that calls them away may threaten their homes. They need a way to stay in contact with loved ones while they're gone.

A major event is a challenge for everyone involved. They are large, move unbelievably rapidly, and exhaust first line responders. No one can completely prepare for them. But by understanding their dynamics, planning ahead and practicing with mutual aid partners, and finally managing for the long run, responders can limit the damage.

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