Lessons from the Tuscaloosa Tornadoes

OPS

Lessons from the Tuscaloosa Tornadoes

By Jason Busch Oct 28, 2011

Imagine your community being jolted awake by an enormous EF3 tornado at 5 a.m. How would your EMS agency—along with police, fire and supporting organizations—respond?

Now imagine a monstrous, rampaging EF4 tornado follows on its heels just 12 hours later.

Fire Chief Alan Martin, of Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue Service, doesn’t have to. He lived it. And he learned from it. He spoke on the experience at the 2011 Pinnacle EMS Leadership & Management Conference and distilled some key takeaways.

Lesson No. 1: You can’t do everything on your own
When the EF3 cut through Tuscaloosa County, just east of the city of Tuscaloosa, around 5 a.m. April 27, it caused significant damage. The National Weather Service had been forecasting conditions for super-cell tornado activity for days beforehand, but no one expected a tornado to hit in the cool early-morning hours. Martin had units responding throughout the day to damaged areas that were without power.

At 3 p.m. the mayor decided to send all nonessential personnel home to rest. Many businesses closed early, which Martin believes ultimately saved a significant number of lives. Around 5 p.m. the EF4 tornado hit Tuscaloosa.

“When it came into the city, it was about 1,200 feet wide, and it stayed on the ground for six miles into the heart of the city,” says Martin. “It was over 1.5 miles wide when it left us, headed toward Jefferson County.

“As leaders, we don’t really take into account the situations where you’re going to be operating over more than one operational period,” Martin continues. “In a case like this, where you have this much damage, this many people injured… I can tell you from first-hand knowledge, you need to staff [key positions] a lot larger and a lot earlier than you think you need to. Because we went from basically being idle to a situation where we had 7,000 homes destroyed and 1,700 people injured in a manner of minutes.”

Lesson No. 2: You need to plan for something that you count on not being there
“In an event this large, there’s not going to be enough of anything,” explains Martin. “The number of people needing help exceeded the amount of resources we had in just about every area. We had our emergency operations center (EOC) destroyed. It was the first building hit. The Salvation Army was destroyed, the Red Cross was hit. So we had to take on the role of sheltering, and a lot of other roles that typically would be handled by our partners in the EOC.”

Even though Tuscaloosa received mutual aid from other parts of the state, it was limited because resources were also going to the northern part of Alabama, where tornadoes had also wreaked havoc.

Lesson No. 3: Resources are coming—those you ask for, and those you don’t
“There’s going to be help coming, some of it you ask for and some of it you don’t,” Martin says. “And you need to be prepared to deal with both.”

Continue Reading

In Martin’s case, he never expected such a huge influx of people who had self-dispatched. And that posed a new set of problems.

“We don’t have shelters for even the responders that we asked to come in,” he says. “And then we have all these hundreds of people coming in on fire trucks from other states, saying ‘Here I am, where do you want me? Oh, by the way, I need a place to sleep.’ We don’t know their level of training and we don’t have anywhere to put them.”

What was most helpful, according to Martin, was students and neighbors coming to each other’s aid in the first few hours after the second tornado hit.

Lesson No. 4: Social media can be your biggest ally
“I learned, as a Baby Boomer, how important the social networks are,” Martin says. “It really wasn’t in any of our planning documents in years past.”

But in a city that’s home to the University of Alabama and its 30,000-plus students, he explains, Facebook and Twitter are how the population communicates.

“A lot of their warnings were received from their parents or friends, through Facebook and Twitter, to take shelter,” Martin says. “A lot of them didn’t have power, so that was one of the only ways they could communicate [on their smartphones].”

However, it wasn’t just college students utilizing social media in the moments before and days after the tornadoes. “The mayor’s office used Facebook and Twitter as official notices to get the word out about shelters, water, ice, food, FEMA locations, disaster assistance, that sort of thing,” Martin explains. “What happens with that is, people like local TV guy are able to put word out to all his friends,” and ultimately reach hundreds of thousands of people.

Conclusion
These certainly aren’t the only lessons Chief Martin took away from the Tuscaloosa tornadoes. But they’re things leaders might not otherwise consider in a plan or drill if they haven’t experienced a disaster situation or large-scale emergency event before. No two emergencies are alike, but the lessons we learn from them can be applied across disciplines and borders in order to save more lives the next time disaster strikes.

The drones are used to improve scene management by assessing areas that are difficult or dangerous for personnel to reach.
The state's Department of Health has established an agreement for UNC and NCBP to collaborate on providing public health data to NEMSIS to better prepare EMS for national emergencies.
FBI, first responders, and the American Red Cross worked around the clock to find the four missing men until Cosmo DiNardo confessed to killing them, leading police to their burial ground.
Scenes function better when EMS can work collaboratively

Summer means mass gatherings, like festivals, sporting events and other popular crowd draws, and those bring their own unique sets of EMS challenges.

Dispatch centers will lose funds entirely if the bill aiming to increase phone surcharges to help support and improve the 9-1-1 call centers is vetoed by the governor.

Ambulance service in Tennessee's Decatur County is in danger of interruption because EMS is out of money, according to Mayor Mike Creasy. 

Leaders from three recent responses debated some pressing questions 

As the tragedies of terrorist attacks continue to unfold, first responders everywhere know one day the call may come to them. Whether it be in a Manchester arena, the London Parliament or outside a Stockholm department store, citizens expect a prepared and competent response.  

In the final days of August 2016, the citizens of Pasco County, Fla., were preparing for Hurricane Hermine, the first to make landfall in Florida in over 10 years.
Ever since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the world’s maritime nations have created and updated a framework to maintain minimum safety standards for merchant and passenger vessels. For the United States this responsibility falls to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Police, fire and EMS agencies will partake in an exercise involving an active shooter at a local elementary school.
Nine emergency agencies, including a crisis response team, trained for a drill that included a hostage situation and explosion.
EMS, fire and police agencies participated in an active shooter training exercise in light of the increasingly frequent shooting incidents across the country.
New dangers have arisen from the influx of fentanyl into the drug market.
Greg Gibson of the DHS' Emergency Services Sector discusses current threats facing first responders.