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.”
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.
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.