Mind the (supply) details

From Oklahoma tornadoes to polar vortex winter storms hitting multiple states, to the Boston marathon, the United States has faced a number of disasters both natural and man-made in just the last year. One fact is clear—disasters can happen anywhere without any way to predict exactly when one might occur. What we can do is learn from each disaster to be more informed, more collaborative and better equipped for the next.

We learned a key lesson this past year. That is, different planning and response needs are required when responding to a natural or man-made disaster in order to ensure police departments are prepared for the unexpected. When facing natural disasters, it is crucial to estimate first responder supplies, especially when several days may pass before additional supplies can be delivered to the devastated area. During the course of man-made disasters, real-time data capture has proven to be a critical technological advantage to help police departments respond and address the disaster at-hand. Regardless of the type of disaster, we as a nation have embraced the understanding that it is truly the collective effort and responsibility of all parties when we do face these emergency situations.


Natural disasters: Estimating energy supply needs

While police departments will never be able to fully estimate the impact of a tornado, snow storm or hurricane, they do have the small advantage of weather reports that provide advanced warning detailing when potentially devastating weather phenomena will impact an area. Whether it’s 24 hours or even a few days, this advanced warning can mean a world of difference in preparations.

When evaluating equipment and energy supplies, accurate estimation is essential simply due to the unknown breadth and impact of the disaster, length of power outages and number of personnel involved. After Super Storm Sandy, it was clear responders needed a comprehensive plan to address the supplies required to power and maintain operation of their network and equipment. Any interruption in first responders’ communications equipment could mean a lack of coordination for rescue efforts or delayed responses to emergency calls. As a result, new protocols have been instilled by communications companies to ensure police departments are adequately prepared with the right type and amount of energy supplies to power the tools they use to do their job.

Today, generators and antennas that power a city’s communications network are thoroughly exercised several days in advance of an anticipated disaster, while backup generators and communication sites on wheels are placed on standby, ready to be deployed to an area within hours after a disaster. Managers routinely take inventory of the type of power required by generators and backup power supplies. There is no room for surprises if a technician refueling a generator is not prepared for a site that requires natural gas.

Past events have highlighted the urgent need for hundreds of additional batteries and chargers to power portable radios and other communications equipment used by first responders working 14- to 18-hour shifts. When potentially hundreds of supporting mutual aid responders head to an area to help with recovery efforts, there is an even greater need for more batteries to ensure everyone can communicate and coordinate.

Police departments are encouraged to work closely with their communications technology vendors to ensure they not only have the batteries, chargers, radios, sites on wheels and other communications tools ready to be delivered within hours, but that these systems are monitored and maintained throughout the emergency to help sustain key communications links for first responders.


Man-made disasters: Real-time information capture

Unlike natural disasters in which cities and states may have the benefit of advanced warning, man-made disasters can happen in an instant without any notice and without indication of the potential aftermath. In these situations, officers must rely heavily on their disaster response training, as well as their communications technology to understand in real-time the extent of the emergency so they can then quickly and safely coordinate their efforts.

Today, with video cameras, databases, social media, sensors and alarms, officers have access to massive amounts of real-time data to help them assess each situation. Departments are increasingly implementing on-body camera solutions as they offer tremendous situational awareness and safety advantages. Take for instance, the team responding to a school shooting faces several unknown variables: the location of the shooter, the number and location of the injured, and the location of remaining students and staff on campus. As officers sweep the school, real-time video from each officer is transmitted to the incident commander and command center, and they are then able to evaluate and communicate critical findings, updates or request backup for the entire first responder team.

Technologies that provide real-time information across broader coverage areas are also critically important during disaster response. The 2013 Boston marathon tragedy highlighted the key role that real-time technology can play in helping understand and piecing together the chain of events, coordinate responses and identify the suspects. Boston officials were able to quickly understand the scenario, garner key information, identify and apprehend suspects within 72 hours by leveraging hundreds of video sources from cameras and cell phones, social media and advanced analytics.

Today, many public safety agencies are setting up real-time crime centers to help put all this data to work for them. They integrate complex and often disparate data elements into one unified, operational view through the aggregation of records, video, and other data sources, while making them available in real time. What’s more, analytics technology can be utilized to analyze photo and video clips from hundreds of disparate sources based on specific search criteria. With a real-time crime center, police departments can support first responders in the field and give them timely access to actionable information to help address and resolve the emergency situation.


The collective responsibility

Whether natural or man-made, each disaster has taught us one underlying lesson—it is everyone's shared responsibility (public safety agencies, businesses, institutions and individuals) to participate in proactive planning and disaster response efforts. Public safety agencies alone cannot and should not handle the services, resources and infrastructure required during and after a disaster.

One successful example is the partnership with public safety agencies and private businesses, such as gas stations, local businesses, communication technology suppliers and healthcare service providers. With approximately 80 percent of the needed resources owned by the private sector, both public and private sectors saw a beneficial relationship to pool resources and expertise to better improve disaster response, recovery and management.

Private sector partners are now integrated into the police or fire department’s emergency plans and protocols development, training and exercises. The quicker businesses and organizations are operational post-disaster, the faster they can provide critical services (such as healthcare) and resources (such as gas, food and water) for the citizens. This allows police departments to focus their time on critical emergency calls, rescue and recovery efforts, debris removal, and so on. Citizens are just as responsible in the planning and recovery efforts. They should be well prepared at home with the food, water, batteries and back-up generators to last them the first few days, while the local businesses focus on restoring operations.

As we plan ahead for the next potential event, we must understand there is no one best disaster response plan. We must always learn from each and our preparations and plans should always be continually refined to ensure we’re incorporating these lessons learned, so that cities and states are even more prepared with the right expertise, resources and tools for next time.


David Paulison is the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), former director of FEMA’s Disaster Preparedness Division, and past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and former fire chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.