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Disaster, Disaster — Is Everyone Prepared?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Donal A. Hardin
September 29, 2015

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in the contemptible struggle.”

 -Edmund Burke

disasterI recall the first time I attended first-responder training as a “baby cop.” We were taught to be ever vigilant for the myriad chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats (CBRN) that could visit a community at any time. We learned how to decode alphanumeric placards on transportation vehicles via the Emergency Response Handbook, decipher the distance to evacuate civilians for various agent exposure variables and splashed through kiddy pools representing the three decontamination zones. We wore our Level-C PPE gear looking like accidental scientists attempting to wash away unknown contaminates after exposure to a hot meteor. Subsequent mandatory training tutorials familiarized us with the NIMS, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and ICS protocols should disaster strike. After learning all the acronyms and completing the forgettable follow-up tests, we were issued nifty certificates as proof of our mastery of the topic. I was prepared all right!

I also recall asking myself –how much good would this do in the critical opening moments of any disaster in my community?

Federal policy, disaster response and homeland security philosophies have evolved since 9/11. However, if budgets reflect priorities we must consider how to buttress local, initial responses to disaster and terror preparedness since funding for local first-responders has been reduced from $4 billion to $2.2 billion in FY 2015. Given that all immediate responses are community-based efforts (police, fire, EMS) to save lives and property in the opening moments of disaster, how do we maximize the effectiveness of these first responders?

The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) is an excellent intelligence gathering resource that has expanded to 104 cities nationwide and accumulates tips and data that are analyzed and (sometimes) shared between multidisciplinary and multi-level government agencies. While the JTTF provides an opportunity to report suspicious behaviors to authorities, it is a little known public resource and is limited to terror-related events. In addition, their feedback on tips from locals is often restricted to the nebulous descriptor “useful.”

Dedicated organizations and pre-planned command structures play an important role. Some point after the primary event has occurred, these entities assist in picking up the pieces, accessing federal funds and fixing things that were broken. However, the grass roots, street-level identification of warning signs and suspicious behaviors provide the foundational instrument of prevention and harm-reduction. Whether it is a street vendor in Times Square or vigilant citizens on an airplane, many disasters are averted because of alert citizens springing into action when the signs of danger are presented to them.

When disasters of all forms occur, they happen to communities and to the individuals that live within those communities. The initial responses to disasters are vital for reducing the overall loss of life and damage to property. This is accomplished by the proper identification of the threats, immediate evacuation of lives and goods, and targeted responses that reduce or mitigate harm at the time it occurs. This holds true for averting any danger such as unsafe methods of storing hazardous chemicals or the detection of early warning signs in decaying infrastructure.

With this local, community-level mindset in place, a few basic suggestions can be made. First, we must foster systemic commitment to the cause of disaster mitigation. Leadership must be bold, certain and actuated from the top down, but conscientiously elected from the bottom up. Mitigating harm from mass disaster and terror is a total commitment that cannot be approached with half measures. Without absolute, systemic integrity and dedication, this endeavor becomes a lukewarm talking point, proving Mr. Burke’s words true yet again.

Next, resources should be dedicated to local, community-based disaster prevention and avoidance to minimize the effects and costs of rebuilding. In addition to the employees of public agencies tasked with disaster and terror detection, intervention and reporting, comprehensive programs of education must be put in place to utilize, train and activate all willing volunteers seeking to protect their community from harm. As the eyes are ears of our neighborhoods, citizens possess familiarity with the local and daily details, nuances, and the words on the street that reveal proximate hazards.

Finally, we must eliminate any proprietary hoarding of information at the top levels of bureaucracy. Replacing this status quo with collaborative trust can produce a dynamic synergy of information and response effectiveness. Local assessment groups should be created for the express purpose of harnessing and expanding the interchange from these untapped veins of information. Cultivating such incalculable sources of data should increase awareness, dedication and diligence across the board.

If we combine these measures with effective, apolitical management and supervision, we should be able facilitate philosophical and systemic improvements. By stressing the prioritization of anti-disaster goals and allowing citizens to become active stakeholders in this innate of community and homeland functions, we can awaken dormant senses keen to detect, prevent and mitigate harms from heretofore-unforeseen events.

Author: Donal Hardin is a retired policing and corrections professional currently finalizing his PhD in public policy and administration. Specializing in public safety ethics, Donal teaches criminal justice courses at various institutions of higher learning. Donal can be reached at [email protected].

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