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6 takeaways from the California wildfires

The initial chaos requires quick, creative incident mitigation solutions, while recovery requires long-term planning


By Art Hsieh, FireRescue1 Contributor

The massive fires in Northern California have stressed the area's emergency response system beyond its very limits. Since the night of Oct. 9, thousands of public safety personnel have been working steadily to save tens of thousands of lives.

Many of them have been directly affected by the disaster, not knowing whether their homes were destroyed or if missing relatives will be among the fatalities. Others still know their homes are lost, and yet continue to pull mammoth shifts to provide ongoing service to the community.

Things have taken a turn for the better in the past 24 hours. (Photo/Art Hsieh)
Things have taken a turn for the better in the past 24 hours. (Photo/Art Hsieh)

Personally, it's been a unique experience to be an EMS provider within the community that I live in. It has been distressing to hear of friends, family and colleagues who are searching for missing loved ones, or who have lost their homes or been displaced to shelters. At the same time, it's been comforting to see the love and support for the public safety personnel that have come from all over the country and protect the region.

Top lessons from the CALIFORNIA wildfires

Several observations are emerging from this incident even as it continues to unfold:

  1. Chaos reigns supreme in the first moments. When the fires began racing down toward the populated areas, crews scrambled to rescue hundreds of infirm people from nursing homes, hospitals and other medical facilities in the path of destruction. EMS crews reported that patients were being loaded into ambulances, busses and private vehicles as buildings began burning. Local communications began to fail as radio towers were destroyed in the fire zone. The 911 dispatchers were overwhelmed by calls for assistance, both from affected areas as well as the rest of the system. Additional resources will not arrive soon enough to assist during the first moments, requiring rapid out-of-the-box thinking for incident mitigation.
  2. The EMS system must continue functioning. Calls for service continued to flood the system even while fire victims were being treated. We were able to staff up quickly, sending literally every piece of rolling stock into the field to expand coverage and fill gaps created by the fire situation.
  3. Major incidents require planning for the long game. Within the first few hours, the number of EMS vehicles on scene grew exponentially. It became apparent that many were not needed at the time, but that there would be long-term needs for transportation during patient relocation and general repopulation of the community. Several strike teams were demobilized and went home fairly early.
  4. Closing a hospital during a disaster has major ramifications for the EMS system. Beyond the initial evacuation needs, the remaining hospitals have been inundated with patients both in and outside the affected areas. The threat of evacuation of at least one of these facilities kept it from admitting patients to the floors. As a result, the number of inter-facility transfers rose dramatically during the initial phase of the incident. Moreover, re-opening a hospital is incredibly challenging and takes much longer than anticipated.
  5. Help from the community can be overwhelming. The outpouring of support from citizens has been absolutely amazing. The amount of food being dropped off by friends and neighbors has at times filled every square inch of tabletop within the building. During the past few days, agencies have been respectfully asking people to stop donating food and focus on getting longer term resources and cash to evacuation centers and agencies that are providing services to those displaced by the fires.
  6. The effects of the fires have greatly affected the first responder community. Many EMS, fire and law enforcement providers have suffered personal loss. There have been a lot of hugs and a few tears going around at the different stations. Little acts of kindness have gone a long way in supporting our brothers and sisters.

Things have taken a turn for the better in the past 24 hours. Most of the community has begun to accept the new normal of living and working within a disaster zone. Local assistance centers are helping victims to begin the process of rebuilding their lives. I am feeling optimistic that we are moving in the right direction.

About the author
Art Hsieh, MA, NRP teaches in Northern California at the Public Safety Training Center, Santa Rosa Junior College in the Emergency Care Program. An EMS provider since 1982, Art has served as a line medic, supervisor and chief officer in the private, third service and fire-based EMS. He has directed both primary and EMS continuing education programs. Art is a textbook writer, author of "EMT Exam for Dummies," has presented at conferences nationwide and continues to provide direct patient care regularly. Art is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Contact Art at Art.Hsieh@ems1.com and connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

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