On May 22, 2011 one of the worst tornados in U.S. history, an EF-5 that measured more than a mile wide, ripped through Joplin, Mo., leaving 161 dead and an estimated $2.8 billion in damages. The city is mourning its losses and rebuilding.
Everyone in the fire service knows that an unexpected, mass-casualty disaster can strike any community. And everyone in the fire service knows that one of the best ways to prepare for future incidents is to learn from past incidents.
So we put the question, "What have you learned from Joplin?" to three fire-service experts. And we ask that you tell us what you learned.
Meet the Experts
Chief Richard B. Gasaway has served 33 years as a fire and EMS professional, including 22 years as a fire chief and 19 years training fire service leaders throughout the United States and Canada. In addition to his dedication to leading and training emergency service personnel, Chief Gasaway has a second passion in his pursuit to understand how the brain works. Dr. Gasaway has immersed himself in the study of brain science, relating the findings of numerous research studies, including his own doctoral research, to help improve emergency service personnel situational awareness and decision making under stress.
Chief Adam K. Thiel is fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. He has 20 years in the field and serves as FireRescue1's editorial advisor. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter, and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Gustav, and Hurricane Isabel.
Jim Yeager has been with TEEX since 2003, and currently serves as a training manager. In 2011 he was responsible for managing 40 training and exercise in Disaster City, across the nation and internationally. In addition he works with international US&R teams and assists them in meeting INSARAG standards. He has been a member of Texas Task Force 1 since 1997 and has served as a canine handler, logistics specialist and is currently a search team manager. He has responded to over 60 search and rescue missions to include the Space Shuttle Columbia, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and the Joplin tornado.
Richard Gasaway: "The tragedy that struck Joplin served to underscore several very important situational-awareness lessons. The one take-away I hope every community will consider is the importance and value of planning.
Many first responders focus on developing the skills to be proficient for high-risk, low-frequency events such as structure fires. This is good.
However, first responders in every community or region should also unite and engage in the process of planning for horrific events such as the massive destruction of a tornado.
It is nearly impossible to predict how things will play out in real time when such a catastrophe strikes. However, getting the key players together to discuss the potential of seemingly incomprehensible scenarios can be extremely valuable even if the script never plays out as it was planned.
One of the best lessons that can come from planning for large scale incidents is the development of what I term incident situational awareness (SA), one of three forms of situational awareness essential for responders (personal SA and team SA being the other two). Incident SA means, in part, being aware of the broader incident and the role that other responders are playing in it.
Every response agency has its own mission and goals to accomplish during a disaster. While many of these goals are complimentary, some of them may be competing.
Possessing an awareness of the mission and goals of other agencies and responders will improve teamwork and effectiveness across all responders. It will also reduce miscommunications and conflict.
Incident SA is vastly improved by planning that involves the agencies that will meet under such tragic circumstances.
I close by offering a quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensible."
My heartfelt sympathy is extended to all affected by this tragedy, especially the first responders who bore the double stress of personal loss while stepping up to serve."
Chief Adam K. Thiel: "The amazing recovery of the Joplin, Mo. community — after last year's tragic tornado destroyed an estimated 7,500 buildings and claimed 161 lives — is a lesson for us all. It's hard to believe it has only been a year, since the lessons from Joplin have already — to their great credit — been widely shared throughout the emergency management field.
In my own region, based on lessons learned and shared from Joplin, we're taking steps to better prepare for several contingencies. One of the major ones is the potential need to evacuate an entire hospital, something we flirted with — and narrowly avoided — during "Snowpocalypse" (the 2009/2010 blizzards).
We often think that our job as firefighters and EMS providers stops in the emergency room of the local hospital; Joplin taught us to re-visit that assumption. What if your local hospital had to close on short notice due to a tornado or other catastrophe?
It certainly got us thinking.
We've purchased, with the aid of federal grant dollars, small utility vehicles to facilitate rapid patient movement across and through large hospital campuses. These UTVs are deployed across the region and maintained by local fire-EMS agencies that will contribute them to a regional response when needed. They are also useful for the many special events we handle on a year-round basis.
In addition, we've purchased and cached large numbers of simple army litters for quickly moving patients through crowded hallways, around, over and through debris, and outside to waiting UTVs — and ultimately to ambulances or ambulance buses. We have also cached supplies of essential products — bottled water, IV solutions, dressings, etc. — across our region to help receiving hospitals handle the potential influx of patients if a neighboring facility has to be evacuated or closed.
If you haven't had the chance to read and review all the material coming from Joplin, you're missing out. One of the best ways we can honor those who lost their lives in this tragedy is by seeking opportunities to use the lessons learned in our own communities."
Jim Yeager: "There were five major things we learned from our response to Joplin.
We learned about the power of storms. It's always an important reminder to see the damage a tornado can do for us to plan our training exercises.
We deployed under EMAC human remains detection dogs; this is a non-standard package for us. We have now developed pre-designated equipment lists to support these deployments.
We also learned that it is critical to have access to trained and certified human remains canines and to know their capabilities and limitations so that we can meet the full spectrum of search needs.
We used some new technology to push information to the team in the field that we had not used before. This gave the team access to intelligence that allowed us to better perform our jobs on the ground. In addition we used the technology to capture information and send it back to our headquarters in real time. This helped us paint a better picture so they could better support us in the field.
And last, it was nice to see the pioneer spirit in the people of Joplin. After the storm they accounted for friends and neighbors and started cleaning up."