Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part V. RESCUE
If you wish to become like the gods and live for days without end,
you must first possess the strength of a god.
Even though you are mighty I will show you that,
like all human beings, you are weak.
—Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, 2100 B.C.
When the next major natural disaster or terrorist attack occurs, here’s what will happen:
The fire department, police, and ambulance companies will race to the scene. The most qualified officer will become the incident commander. He will establish an incident command post, or headquarters. Until he is relieved, he will be in charge of the entire operation, unless there are multiple incidents (such as bombs detonated in different locations), in which case he and the incident commander at each location will report to a single area commander.
In the meantime, the injured will lie there bleeding, screaming for help. But that’s okay. Without an organized plan, chaos would ensue and more lives would be lost.
The incident commander will then appoint a public information officer to deal with the media and the community; a liaison officer in charge of getting assistance from other agencies and jurisdictions; and a safety officer to make sure emergency workers aren’t putting themselves or others in danger.
If the situation is so catastrophic that multiple agencies are involved or it crosses jurisdictional lines, the incident commander will set up a unified command, with incident commanders from each major agency running the operation from a single shared command post.
People are still bleeding. But that’s okay. They’ll be taken care of shortly. Except for the ones who are in shock and massively hemorrhaging. They’ll probably die.
The incident commander will then set up four departments, with officers in charge of each: planning, logistics, operations, and finance/administration.
The operations section chief will organize a number of different teams—usually a rescue team to extricate victims, a medical team to triage and treat them, a fire team to extinguish any blazes, and a hazmat team to handle hazardous materials and those exposed to them. He will also appoint a staging area manager, who will send arriving rescue workers to join the appropriate team.
Finally, rescuers will begin working to make the area safe and extricate victims. If they can reach any survivors without endangering themselves, they’ll begin triaging them, treating them, and transporting the seriously injured to nearby hospitals in helicopters and ambulances.
If the disaster is too big for local agencies and resources to handle on their own, the incident commander will alert the regional emergency operations center, which will activate the state operations center, which will brief the governor, who will request a joint preliminary disaster assessment from the Department of Homeland Security and, if appropriate, request a presidential declaration of a state of emergency through the FEMA Regional Administrator, who will evaluate the request and forward it to the national FEMA Administrator, who will report to the Secretary of Homeland Security, who will pass the recommendation on to the president.
If this seems confusing, that’s because it is. By now, anyone in critical condition who wasn’t lucky enough to receive care via local resources is dead. As for everyone else, they’re stranded, starving, and sick, wondering when more help is going to arrive.
The president will then declare a state of emergency and activate the National Response Coordination Center, which will make an overall plan, notify the involved federal agencies, and deploy emergency response teams. All these agencies will then create and staff a joint field office to coordinate government resources and, finally, deliver federal assistance.
It’s all been nicely worked out by the government in a system every emergency responder is trained and tested in: the National Incident Management System. As a testament to the planning power of the human mind, the many agencies and inner workings of the country’s emergency response apparatus are awe-inspiring in their sophistication and complexity.
But just because there’s an organizational system doesn’t mean that people will be organized.
They’re still human beings.
When disaster strikes, even after the delays caused by the implementation of the federal plan, arriving teams often end up asking each other if they know what’s going on and what they’re supposed to do. As victims lay trapped in the wreckage, emergency responders are arguing over whether they can take responsibility for freeing them. While people are dying, officers are trying to determine what department has jurisdiction over the ground they’re dying on. As requests for assistance are traveling up the federal ladder, the death toll is rising as agencies argue over their responsibilities, try to locate key employees and politicians, and assemble further committees and teams.
In a large-scale disaster, it may take three to fourteen days before the system begins working as it’s designed to. Thus, the National Incident Management System is not necessarily a means of turning disaster response into science, but a new avenue of debate and miscommunication.
I know because I’m now part of this system:
A lot has happened in the last few months. Let me fill you in.