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Validity of Safety Systems Designed to Protect Emergency Responders

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Craig M. Tuckett

Are emergency responders at the local level provided with the highest level of protection possible during disaster response?

Over the past 20 years, the protection of emergency responders has improved substantially. More regulatory requirements govern the activities performed by emergency response organizations than ever before and a greater awareness of the need to protect emergency responders during disasters has become evident.

…the protection of emergency responders needs to be
included in the emergency planning process…

Improved Protection of Emergency Responders
A review of recent United States history reveals that a tremendous change has occurred in the way in which disasters are managed. When it was recognized that there was a need for greater standardization among response agencies, we began to see significant changes taking place in disaster management.

Improvement in the safety of emergency responders can be attributed to technological advances, increased media coverage, major loss of both life and commerce as a result of terrorist attacks, and formal research data that has captured both best practices and errors. With this increase in the number, size and complexity of disasters affecting the United States, local emergency response agencies must continually evaluate their capabilities to determine whether or not they have the resources and personnel to safely and effectively respond to disasters.

Duties of the Emergency Response Agencies
The primary focus of emergency responders during disaster response is to aid those who are in danger and protect critical infrastructure. During this stage, emergency responders are exposed to a variety of occupational hazards. The protection of emergency responders is of critical importance and has a significant impact on the overall success of any response effort.

Emergency response agencies at the local, state and federal level are responsible for ensuring that systems are in place that provides protection for its personnel. Under the direction of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a detailed study was conducted by the Rand Corporation which concluded, “Based on the lessons of the disasters examined during the study, there is a clear need to integrate responder safety management more effectively into preparedness planning.” This statement reinforces the fact that the protection of emergency responders needs to be included in the emergency planning process rather than becoming an afterthought that suddenly has to be dealt with at a time of a crisis.

Staffing and Training Limitations
The results of scholarly research and interviews clearly indicate that, in larger metropolitan areas, only a select number of emergency responders are able to participate in disaster simulations due to resource constraints. By increasing the staffing of emergency response agencies in larger metropolitan areas, cities would be better equipped to handle the day-to-day needs of the citizens and allow more emergency responders to receive the training they need to effectively work as part of joint task forces assembled during response to a disaster.

One of the most important elements of any safety management system is the importance of employee involvement. Emergency responders should be empowered by offering them an opportunity to participate in disaster response planning. Encouraging responders to participate not only fosters a spirit of continuous improvement, but also promotes a feeling of ownership.

Coordinated Emergency Response
In October 1994, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) stated, “In 1980, the ICS that was originally developed in California under the FIRESCOPE program made the transition into a national program called the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS).” NIIMS was developed in effort to streamline the incident command system, making it possible for multiple response agencies to coordinate their multi-unit response efforts more effectively.

One important element of the Incident Command System is that it is used by the responders at the disaster scene. It is also important, however, for the incident commander to recognize that the Incident Management System (IMS) and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) affect one another during disaster response.

Ronald W. Perry and Michael K. Lindell state in Emergency Planning, that “As the incident demands escalate, response-generated demands increase substantially. The EOC must be activated to support operations at the incident scene. Whether one or more incident scenes exist, on-scene operations are best commanded there, not from the EOC.” Because emergency operations centers (EOCs) are such a critical support for emergency responders in the field, responders should participate in frequent exercises that involve the members of the EOC so that they are familiar with the communication systems and personalities of those with whom they will be working during response to a live disaster.

Regulatory Influences Affecting Protection of Emergency Responders
According to FEMA in a 2008 Annex titled Workers Safety and Health Support Annex, “The Worker Safety and Health Coordination Committee provides the identification and integration of response and recovery worker safety and health assets needed for emergency planning and preparedness.” Emergency response agencies must recognize that federal agencies such as FEMA and OSHA will regulate their activities, but more importantly, these agencies will provide tools and resources to help these agencies succeed in their efforts to protect emergency responders.

Economic Downturn and Safety of Emergency Responders
Although protection of emergency responders has improved, in times of economic downturn, funding for emergency response organizations is often cut and in some cases responders face furloughs, resulting in less response capability at the local level. This also creates vulnerability at the local level by placing even more burden on citizens within the community and federal agencies called upon to respond following major disasters.

It would be extremely costly and time-consuming, and, in many ways, ineffective for an organization such as FEMA to maintain the staffing and resources to respond to all disasters occurring at the local level. Therefore, local response agencies must retain the personnel and maintain the resources necessary to respond to larger-scale incidents.

The federal government has provided a framework within which local agencies can begin to build their safety management systems. However, in order to truly ensure the protection of emergency responders, emergency response agencies must train responders, provide responders with state-of- the-art equipment and hold responders accountable for both their safety and the safety of the public they serve. A spirit of continuous improvement within each agency responsible for these elite personnel must be promoted and employees should be actively involved in the development and maintenance of safety management systems.

Craig M. Tuckett is a graduate student at Jacksonville State University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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