When Nature and Man Do Their Worst
Florida’s Coral Springs Parkland Fire Department (CSPFD) and Coral Springs Police Department (CSPD) train constantly to respond to many different types of routine and catastrophic incidents, particularly those involving threats to public health and safety. The City of Coral Springs also maintains and continually updates policies, procedures, and emergency response plans to provide the necessary preparedness framework for anything that occurs. This article will describe two recent instances in which policies, procedures, response plans, and specialty equipment were not only tested but made a major difference in the outcome of the incident and for the patients involved.
The Big Blow of 2017
The first of these tests occurred during the landfall of Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Hurricane Irma initially approached the Southeast coast of Florida as one of the strongest storms in recorded history. Although the monstrous tempest weakened after devastating much of the Caribbean (including massive destruction in Puerto Rico), its deadly winds and rainfall then directly targeted Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Coral Springs and neighboring cities directly in its path. Per longstanding policy, city entities, including public safety agencies, would be forced to shut down and take shelter as the storm passed.
Coral Springs had initiated its preparations for impact many days in advance. The planning section of the emergency operations center (EOC) ramped up well before landfall and continued to work tirelessly throughout the event. The mayor of Coral Springs signed emergency declarations on Wednesday, September 6, four days out. Saturday at 0700 hours the EOC went into full activation. That same morning, police and fire departments recalled all their firefighters, police officers, supervisors, and command staff, commencing a formal state of emergency operations.
The EOC was fully staffed with representation from every service, department, and function of the city. The city’s call center was extremely active, answering 2,091 calls from residents and business owners throughout the event. The public information officer (PIO) section diligently kept the community up to date using all forms of communication, including social media, news media releases, Code Red notifications, and public service announcements over television and radio. The city’s emergency manager, Alex Falcone, kept us on track by developing and implementing a productive meeting and briefing schedule. By following this schedule, the team was able to keep everyone informed and working cohesively toward the same goals.
Not long after the EOC opened, our jurisdiction began to see bands of deteriorating weather conditions, first appearing that Saturday evening. By Sunday morning, as Irma made landfall in the nearby Florida Keys, Coral Springs was already experiencing wind-driven rain with gusts approaching tropical storm force. With employee safety the top priority, plans were developed for each operational period and disseminated to those responsible for the crews working in the field through their chain of command. Additionally, an accountability system was put in place to ensure the command staff was aware at all times of the location and ability to respond of all city staff. Staffing plans for each division were delivered to the EOC before the next operational period and monitored throughout. This also included plans for sheltering and limiting city services, including restricting police and fire from 9-1-1 responses during hazardous circumstances.
That plan is always tough. One of the most difficult situations for public safety officers to experience is having to suspend their responses to the citizens they serve. Halting 9-1-1 response goes against the core of every firefighter’s and police officer’s being and all their preparations and training. It seemingly betrays their very oath.
Nevertheless, consistent with regional practice for protecting personnel, the CSPFD and CSPD required emergency apparatus to suspend all responses whenever winds reach a sustained velocity of 45 mph or greater. Most fire and police apparatus are either too top-heavy or light to respond safely in high-wind situations. As well, high-velocity flying debris can easily penetrate well-constructed buildings, much less roadway vehicles. If injured during this onslaught, those officers and firefighters would no longer be of use to the citizens who needed them.
Tactics for the Tempest
With concern for such circumstances in mind, eight years earlier the CSPD purchased a unique specialty apparatus manufactured by Lenco, a specialty-vehicle manufacturer based in Pittsfield, Mass. This highly specialized tank-like vehicle, named the BearCat, is an armored tactical response unit typically used for special-operations (SWAT) responses and other hostile/austere settings. Weighing approximately 10 tons with a low center of gravity and the ability to carry 10–12 fully geared team members, it’s not only extremely sturdy but also stable for use in high-wind and projectile-debris conditions.
Shortly after noon on that landfall Sunday, emergency responders went into limited response mode due to deteriorating conditions. By 1:33 p.m., all personnel were removed from the road and ordered to shelter. Nevertheless, thanks to incorporation of the BearCat into our disaster response protocol, public safety teams were still able to respond and mitigate serious high-priority calls. We’d established triage decision-making for the BearCat and were able to monitor all requests for service in real time in the EOC.
Under the command of CSPD Sgt. Scott Myers, the BearCat team was staffed with three police officers and two specially trained firefighter/paramedics accompanied by a full complement of ALS equipment. This team responded to 13 high-priority calls during the height of the storm, demonstrating the ability to provide pivotal care for those in emergent need.
Among those calls the BearCat team rescued three citizens who were trapped in their home, with wind, rain, and debris pouring down on them, by a tree that had fallen on their roof. They also rescued an American flag lying in the roadway.
Even more compelling, these hurricane heroes were also a major factor in bringing a new life into the world, as they facilitated the delivery and transport of a baby amid the crisis.
The role this specialty vehicle played in the emergency response configuration for this disaster may never be fully appreciated, but it proved one way to address the great concern public safety officers have regarding restricted response.
Mitigating a Nightmare
The second test of our planning and preparation took place on Valentine’s Day 2018. The attack at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will go down as the ninth-worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The Coral Springs Parkland Fire Department was the primary fire-rescue agency to respond to this incident. When we talk about having plans and policies in place ahead of time to ensure a seamless response, it’s incidents like this that show why. What happened on February 14 confirmed that those plans and policies are indeed extremely valuable.
Over 100 firefighters from 21 different stations and seven Broward County agencies responded. The tactics used to respond and treat the injured were developed (and related training was implemented over and over) well ahead of this event. Even the equipment, such as tourniquets, had been used in the training and thus tested. In the end the plans, policies, training, and equipment truly changed the script of this horrible tragedy. They enabled us to save all of the lives of those still salvageable from the scene.
Evan Boyar, MD, chair and medical director of the Broward Health North Emergency Department and one of the receiving physicians for this event, wrote the following regarding the prehospital professionals who responded:
"I am writing on behalf of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Broward Health North. I would like to recognize the EMS providers for their exemplary performance during the horrible tragedy that devastated our community on February 14, 2018. After a meticulous post-hoc analysis of the victims transported to BHN, every patient was cared for to the highest standards in the prehospital setting. [This ranged] from swift on-scene evaluations, the appropriateness of tourniquets and application of bleeding dressings, adherence to Advance Trauma Life Support standards, concise and well-defined communications, and expedited transport times to the rapid transition of care to our ED team. EMS personnel displayed courage and unprecedented professionalism throughout each step of the process despite the complex circumstances surrounding this tragedy. Every patient transported to our facility with potential survivable injuries will walk out of the hospital. I strongly believe this is due to the heroic, seamless, outstanding care provided by EMS."
There were also multiple BearCats deployed by multiple agencies on February 14, all of which had been used in preparatory training. These were used to create a tactical advantage and provide cover for law enforcement to move in and remove victims. In addition to chest seals, tourniquets, and rapid evacuation, these tactical vehicles provided us with an additional intervention and advantage not always considered part of a traditional EMS response.
The experience also underscores the value of integrated partnering, planning, and training with law enforcement colleagues. Our community has now experienced two deadly disasters over the past six months, one natural and one human-made. During both occurrences we were able to deploy the BearCat and create a team with police officers to assist and protect our citizens. Based on our experiences we would advise other cities to consider utilizing this type of vehicle should similar situations arise.
On the Front Lines
As with any emergency or disaster, planning and readiness are key to a successful outcome. Just as all public safety agencies must strive to do, the Coral Springs Parkland Fire Department and Coral Springs Police Department will continue to use collaborative planning and training time to develop innovative contingencies to prepare as best we can for the next threat to public safety.
Sidebar: Special Storm Delivery
During the peak of the storm, with all public-safety personnel sheltered, the Coral Springs dispatch center received a 9-1-1 call from a resident saying his wife had gone into labor. The caller made it very clear birth was imminent and they needed immediate help. The information was relayed to the EOC via dispatch, and CSPFD EMS Chief Juan Cardona notified me as the overall incident commander. We called the assistant fire chief responsible for that sector of the city, John Whalen, to confer about the situation and current conditions.
We quickly gathered information and decided it was not safe to send either an engine or rescue ambulance due to extraordinary wind gusts. Even had we deployed these units, access was limited by downed trees and other storm debris, including possible downed power lines and live wires. With the BearCat on another priority call, we decided the best course of action would be to try to respond in one of our 4x4 command vehicles.
When Whalen and driver-engineer Chris Hurst arrived at the scene, they found the patient in the middle of delivering her baby girl in the confines of her bathroom with the help of her mother. The delivery went without apparent complication, but there was still a need to get mom and baby to the hospital safely, and transportation would be a challenge. As soon as the BearCat cleared its call, it responded to assist with delivering the new mom and baby to the local hospital.
Frank Babinec is chief of the Coral Springs Parkland Fire Department. Contact him at email@example.com. The author thanks Drs. Peter Antevy and Paul Pepe for their assistance with this article.