Launch Slideshow

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10 ways to improve tornado response

10 ways to improve tornado response

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  • Piles of residential debris (pictured in June 2011) in Joplin, Mo., sit in the right of way awaiting collection during Expedited Debris Removal. The city was struck by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

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    Piles of residential debris (pictured in June 2011) in Joplin, Mo., sit in the right of way awaiting collection during Expedited Debris Removal. The city was struck by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

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    Suzanne Everson/FEMA

    Piles of residential debris (pictured in June 2011) in Joplin, Mo., sit in the right of way awaiting collection during Expedited Debris Removal. The city was struck by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

  • Tuscaloosa County in Alabama was able to get a functioning Emergency Management Agency (EMA) with help from the Mobile Emergency Response Support. The previous EMA was destroyed in the April 27, 2011, tornado.

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    Tuscaloosa County in Alabama was able to get a functioning Emergency Management Agency (EMA) with help from the Mobile Emergency Response Support. The previous EMA was destroyed in the April 27, 2011, tornado.

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    Tim Burkitt/ FEMA

    Tuscaloosa County in Alabama was able to get a functioning Emergency Management Agency (EMA) with help from the Mobile Emergency Response Support. The previous EMA was destroyed in the April 27, 2011, tornado.

  • Police officers Jeff Dutton and Mohanead Tabia survey damage in Moored, Okla.

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    Police officers Jeff Dutton and Mohanead Tabia survey damage in Moored, Okla.

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    Andrea Booher/FEMA

    Police officers Jeff Dutton and Mohanead Tabia survey damage in Moored, Okla.

  • The Debris Task Force conducts an assessment after an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo.

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    The Debris Task Force conducts an assessment after an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo.

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    Elissa Jun/FEMA

    The Debris Task Force conducts an assessment after an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo.

  • Debris Removal Continues in Tornado Ravaged Community

    Volunteer crews help local residents with debris removal on private property in Moore, Okla. Cleanup continues throughout areas that were impacted by the May 20, 2013, tornado.

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    Volunteer crews help local residents with debris removal on private property in Moore, Okla. Cleanup continues throughout areas that were impacted by the May 20, 2013, tornado.

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    Jocelyn Augustino/ FEMA

    Volunteer crews help local residents with debris removal on private property in Moore, Okla. Cleanup continues throughout areas that were impacted by the May 20, 2013, tornado.

5. Know your chain of command

FEMA’s National Instant Management System (NIMS) is the go-to resource for disaster planning and response. Each state has an emergency management director, and each county must have a NIMS contact.

“Generally, we start with the chief and then the council and then move on to other agencies,” says Susie Culp, Tuscaloosa’s communication supervisor and a police dispatcher. “Captains and senior supervisors initially put their strategies in place. Fire and rescue has been dispatched and everyone is notified of the hit via radio because that’s what the first responders will have with them.”

Employees must understand that the chain of command they follow daily won’t change in an emergency. Following protocol is critical because if a task is performed, it may impact operations on the ground. Only when released by the direct supervisor from his usual responsibilities may an employee perform another task.

“NIMS emphasizes that you only have one supervisor,” Hartin says. “If an employee is given a task and someone comes along and tells him to do something else, that person is not the employee’s direct supervisor, regardless of rank.”

If asked to do something, he suggests, be respectful but get the order through the chain of command. “If you take your instructions that way, it keeps things at a higher level.”

6. Document, document, document

FEMA reimbursement requirements vary from disaster to disaster. The applicant briefing will cover what’s required, but here’s a tip that will make gathering and organizing supporting documentation 100% easier: Work the same way in an emergency as you do every day.

“An athlete doesn’t train one way and then do something completely different in a game,” says Keene’s Blomquist. “The tasks during and after an event are the same tasks you do every day but with a different intensity. You’re going to fall back on what you do naturally.

“If guys are recording hours in the same way when clearing tornado debris as they would when digging a hole, you’ve set yourself up so that when something occurs, your information is already in the form in which it needs to be submitted. We demolish buildings when we do public works projects and have to clean up and separate the debris. How we separate the pile is done the same way as with debris from a disaster, but the volume of material is much higher.”

Blomquist bases his team’s reporting requirements, such as how to submit daily payroll and equipment reporting sheets, on FEMA forms like the Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) of facilities, private property, public infrastructure, and debris volumes, all of which are on the agency’s website.

You’re also more likely to get reimbursed if you take photos and record any damage before clearing away any debris.

“We're doers in public works,” Blomquist says. “Sometimes we jump in and just start doing things. We start opening up roads, but we forget to take photos. But it’s so important. You must have it as part of a checklist.” It’s easy and doesn’t take much time thanks to digital cameras and smartphones.

7. Develop a support network

Most of your team probably lives in the community they serve. When disaster strikes, they’ll have to deal with property loss and, possibly, death of family and friends while participating in cleanup and rescue efforts.

“Don’t put that person back on the street,” says Tuscaloosa’s Culp. “Help as much as you can, but let him or her take care of personal things.”

Sometimes, employees think the best thing to do is to get on the streets and start helping. Not necessarily. You may have to require them to see a therapist or minister and to take time off.

According to the National Disaster Recovery Framework, “Psychological and emotional needs range from helping individuals to handle the shock and stress associated with the disaster’s impact and recovery challenges, to addressing the potential for and consequences of individuals harming themselves or others through substance, physical, and emotional abuse.”

8. Remove vegetative debris first

Tornado damage is usually confined to a narrow path extending up to one-half mile wide and from 100 yards to several miles long, according to the "Disaster Debris Management Training Manual—Debris Forecasting and Estimating 2013." Debris will consist of damaged and destroyed structures, green waste, and personal property. Volume will depend on the funnel’s size and how long it touched the ground.

FEMA can be very picky about how debris is separated. Develop a management plan, including prearranged contracts, for each type of debris before a disaster. If you usually require three quotes before hiring a contractor, make sure the plan outlines exceptions. If it doesn’t, Blomquist says, you won’t get reimbursed.

Debris must be separated by type, which is why multiple sweeps are performed after a tornado.

“You want the vegetated material first because it doesn’t need to go to a landfill,” says APWA Emergency Management Committee member Michael Sutherland. “Educate the public on how to separate construction from non-construction material.”

Give contractors clear directives. “When I hire a contractor, I ask him to make separate piles,” Blomquist says. “I say ‘put the metal on one side; put the wood here.’ This separation must be done because metal can go to a recycling plant and clean wood can be burned. Other materials may have to go a landfill, which has to be figured out by talking with the state and other local resources.”

9. Street clearing: emergency vehicles first

“You may have to carry a person a significant distance,” Tuscaloosa’s Hartin says. “You want to minimize this distance. Get the major arteries open to minimize the distance of travel where it’s safe for ambulances to run back and forth.”

Thus, main arterials—primary streets and streets needed to get to the hospital —are first priority for clearing, followed by residential collector streets. They can be cleared in small segments. Not all lanes need to be reopened, just enough to let fire and rescue through.

Prioritize secondary roads based on whether emergency vehicles need to get through or, for example, if a side street has an apartment complex as opposed to a tree blocking the way.

“You often won’t know what needs to be cleared until it has to be done,” Hartin says. “You may start clearing an area and suddenly a higher priority comes up. You may need to get structural collapse equipment to an area. People on the ground will be coordinating efforts through the instant management command center that’s been set up.”