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The Tuscaloosa tornado: Lessons to learn outlined at FRI

On April 27, what’s been described as the most devastating tornado in the state’s history cut nearly a mile-wide swath through Tuscaloosa

To say April was a busy month for fire departments in Alabama is an understatement.

Over the course of the four weeks, the state was hit by 64 tornados, which killed more than 240 people, caused $1.5 billion in property damage and created 10 million cubic yards of debris.

Of the dozens of tornados, one was particularly brutal — on April 27, what’s been described as the most devastating tornado in the state’s history cut nearly a mile-wide swath through Tuscaloosa, killing more than 41 people.

During a session at Fire-Rescue International on Friday, the university town’s fire chief outlined how the department responded and the lessons it learned.

“One of the things that worked well for us — and is the hardest thing to get folks to do — was to get our Incident Command set up early, prior to the storm,” Chief Alan Martin said.

In the hours leading up to the April 27 tornado, the National Weather Service issued a warning that the department couldn’t help but take notice of: “This is going to be a horrific day for Alabama.”

Not for at least 30 years, the session was told, had there been a day when the conditions were going to come together for such super-scale storm activities.

In the aftermath of the Tuscaloosa tornado, a range of challenges faced Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue including:

  • Access to most heavily damaged areas blocked
  • Command staff unreachable at times
  • Number of people needing help overwhelmed the system
  • Number of missing persons

Regarding leadership tips that can aid departments in similar situations, Tuscaloosa Fire Marshal John Brook, who was part of the Incident Command Team, advised to staff big and staff early, assign a documentation unit leader and utilize social media.

“Remember, we are an information-hungry society,” he said. “I would encourage having somebody sat in the Command Center doing social media, putting out vetted and correct information.

“As well as feeding the correct information, it can keep the rumors down.”

When responding to MCIs on the scale of the April 27 tornado, departments also need to be aware of the need for Critical Incident Stress Management for responders — and the need for it to be initiated early.

“Think back to the day when these young, healthy, energetic firefighters walk into your office and you meet them for the first time,” Brook said.

“Five years later, and you’re not sure where that young, energetic person is. That person has had five years of stress. Our folks had 10 years of stress in one night.”

In addition, other lessons departments can learn include:

  • During such incidents, there’s no time to do anything other than to react — so you must plan early
  • Something you planned on won’t be there
  • Field commanders need to know where they fit into the big picture
  • Delegate
  • Try to resist sending most of your resources to the first calls coming in
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