How Prepared in Your Department for Severe Weather?

By:  Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

On August 29, 2015 we will mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming ashore with catastrophic results20150825_severe storm damage for the populations of Louisiana and Mississippi. How ready are your department and community to manage the consequences of severe weather when it comes to town?

The USA experiences some of the most severe weather in the world. Every year storms unleash strong winds, torrential rains, lightning, and hail that kill hundreds of people, injure thousands more, and cause property losses in the billions of dollars. Chesterfield County, Virginia experiences severe weather every year in the form of strong thunderstorms during the spring and summer months. The county also has a pertinent history of small tornados, hurricanes, and the remnants of tropical weather systems passing through the county with significant adverse impact.

When such weather does strike, it creates a rapid escalation in emergency calls for service that put a severe strain on the emergency response resources of the Chesterfield Fire and EMS Department. Presently, the department does not have a comprehensive response policy that enables its personnel to manage the extraordinary problems and demands for resources that severe weather can cause.

20150825_tornado-ecpa-image-for-blogThat’s from the abstract of my 2000 Applied Research Project (ARP), my third of four ARPs that I would complete to graduate from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). I conducted that ARP, entitled Chesterfield Fire Department Response to Severe Storm Emergencies, to complete the requirements for my 3rd year EFOP class, Executive Analysis of Fire Department Operations in Emergency Management.

See Related: My Four EFOP Applied Research Projects

How ready are your department and community to manage the consequences of severe weather when it comes to town?

During my work on that ARP, I conducted a survey to assess the attitudes of our company officers (lieutenants and captains) and middle managers (senior battalion chiefs, battalion chiefs, and senior captains) regarding their ability to manage problems and resources during severe weather operations. The survey was distributed to 86 fire officers of those ranks.

The study findings indicated that a majority of officers had a high level of confidence in their training and ability to manage the consequences of severe weather. Those findings, however, were at odds with the department’s lack of a policy, and the necessary training for such key area of severe storm response as:

  • Situational assessment, e.g., “windshield surveys”;
  • Development of formal incident objectives;
  • Comprehensive resource management;
  • Safety issues related to severe storms; and
  • An expanded ICS structure.

(I felt pretty confident that those were in fact deficiencies as I was one of those middle managers at the time [a 20150825_Incident CommanderSenior Captain] who’d served the department and Chesterfield County for 18 years and I’d never had the first exposure to any education and training on the subject, except of course, that obtained from the “School of Hard Knocks.”)

Long story short, after presenting a summary of this ARP to our Fire Chief, Steve Elswick and his Deputy Chiefs, I was tasked with leading a project team to implement the policy and procedure and training recommendations contained in the ARP for the department.  The project, named Project Thunderhead, provided the first comprehensive guidance and direction for resource deployment and management during and after severe weather generated incidents.

The foundation of that guidance and direction was the development of a policy document, Major Incident/Severe Storm Preparedness and Response. The policy development was followed by an eight-hour training session, conducted over 27 training sessions, that reached every uniformed member of the department.

I’d like to say that the story had a happy ending, where the policy was in place and everyone was trained and we never had another problem when confronted with challenges brought on by severe weather, but that would be a work of fiction and this is reality.

The reality is that it would take several more years of “stop, then go” behaviors on the part of departmental leaders who, quite honestly, had lots of important issues on their plates at any given time. As I would imagine it works for any fire and EMS organization, the “squeaky wheel gets the oil.” But to the credit of my former department’s leadership, they never let the work die off and today the department has in place, and uses:

20150825_CFEMS Ops Policy 39

So one last time, How ready are your department and community to manage the consequences of severe weather when it comes to town?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].