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Disaster Management: A Death in the Family

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.

All too often we tend to think of disasters largely in terms of the physical damage and inconvenience that they cause.  A tornado that destroys dozensof homes.   A snowstorm that dumps a foot of snow while temperatures plummet to the teens.  A flood that closes half the roads in town.  A hurricane that erodes five miles of beach.  We hear numbers about the dollar loss, and even when references are made to people, they too become a faceless number.  Sixty thousand people without power.  Dozens of evacuees.   Three hundred without jobs.  We all know the drill.   

On the morning of September 11, unimaginable amounts of numbers were indelibly etched with the faces of innocent civilians and public safety workers as the result of a blatant attack against the United States.   I share the sorrow of their families and their respective agencies during this most troubling time.  As a communications center manager, I can only imagine what my counterparts who were directly responsible for dispatching the initial responses had to cope with.  What was the mindset in New York City where radio calls to company after company on the scene at the World Trade Center went unanswered?  How did the telecommunicators in Arlington, Virginia respond when their focus turned from the CNN reports from Manhattan to the real world scenario unfolding at the Pentagon, right outside their window? And what was it like in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, where a nameless field was suddenly thrust into a shared spotlight with more famous American icons?

Few of us really know, because most of us haven’t been there.  But, all of us really do know, because we’ve been somewhere close.   It is the lucky, indeed, who have never been faced with the death or serious injury of a law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical care provider.   The annual tolls are alarming.  Yet, sadly, unless our PSAP is somehow involved, they too become numbers.  We share the sense of loss, but it is still impersonal.  We grieve for what they were rather than for whom.  Perhaps it’s time to refocus on how we think about disaster management to concentrate on the human toll.  And although we have been trained to place focus upon those we serve, there has never been a more appropriate time to turn our attention to taking care of our own.  The question on everyone’s mind is, “How would we deal with a death in the family?”

Obviously, the initial response to such a tragedy is critical.  The necessity to maintain accurate unit status cannot be overstated.  In the initial moments of confusion, both the incident commander and the dispatcher need to know exactly who is – and who isn’t – on the scene.  Now, consider the possibility that the incident commander is one of the victims – and the importance of the role of the communications center becomes crystal clear.  Upon notification of personnel down, telecommunicators should immediately attempt to verify the number and nature of the injuries and begin procedures to account for the whereabouts of all responders.  Dependent upon jurisdictional protocol and the number of injuries, these efforts will not doubt already have been instituted on site.

The next step in the process is the mobilization of required assistance.  This may require the dispatch of additional conventional and non-conventional resources, notification of agency administrators, hospitals, and government officials, and the call out of additional staff.  This phase may also involve the augmentation of communications resources, such as the deployment of command and control vehicles and the location of off-duty telecommunicators.  This assistance will be required to cope with the emergency itself, as well as to handle the flurry of phone calls inquiring about the latest developments.  Consideration also must be given to maintaining timely dispatch service to the remainder of the community despite the understandable desire to focus on the disaster itself.  To their credit, there is strong evidence to suggest that the agencies involved in the September 11th tragedies were able to do just that.

Aid and assistance for affected families may also fall under the duties assigned to communications.  Locating loved ones, arranging for transportation, and the call out of special services are all among common dispatch duties.  Another means of assistance is provided through rumor control.  Although they did a fine job overall, the media actually helped to propagate faulty information on several occasions during the initial stages of the crisis.  Keep in mind, too, that there may be familial or social relationships between dispatch personnel and responders.   Plan for this eventuality.  Even if your agency normally prohibits relatives from working the same shift, during true disasters this will not necessarily hold true. 

The final, but certainly not the least important consideration is taking care of the 9-1-1 center staff.   A line of duty death can be a traumatic experience on both sides of the microphone.  Make sure that appropriate counseling and follow-ups are offered.  Dispatchers showing signs of stress should be temporarily relieved of duty, and even those who appear unaffected should be given frequent breaks.  

Keep in mind, too, that today’s technology can create additional stress by placing an increasing number of victims directly in touch with call takers.   So, as we think about those agencies that are dealing with almost unimaginable losses, let us not forget the staff of the Westmoreland Pennsylvania PSAP.   While they thankfully will not be burying one of their own, they did have the dubious distinction of receiving a 9-1-1 call from United Flight 93, just seconds before the doomed airliner crashed to earth.  For them, it may not have been a death in the family, but it certainly was up close – and very, very personal.

Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.


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