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Rising Sun: Dimming Hope - What the 9-1-1 Community Can Learn from the Tragedy in Japan
Author: Barry Furey
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Sitting half a world away and watching the spectacle unfold, those of us in the Western Hemisphere are still afforded a ringside seat as the tragedy in Japan continues to develop. Every day brings with it new information, and seemingly a new crisis. As with any disaster, we in emergency services have a unique view of these events. Who didn’t watch the Twin Towers fall and immediately have a sense of the tremendous public safety losses? We didn’t need to be informed; the first picture told us everything we needed to know. As 9-1-1 professionals we also have a unique opportunity – perhaps even an obligation – to learn about managing disasters vicariously through the experience of others without having to feel the pain firsthand.
So, in these few days since the incident began, what have we learned? First, we have confirmed our belief that natural disasters are the absolute pinnacle of events that we must manage. The earthquake registered a shocking 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it one of the five most powerful recorded since 1900. It was then followed up by a tsunami, which should provide us with a second lesson; that we need to prepare for multiple contingencies and not just singular challenges. There are any number of disasters throughout history that prove this out. Take the Challenger, for example. There was a questionable sealing design for the rocket O-rings, but additional forces came into play when it got below freezing. We all know the end result.
Now, challenge number three in the mix is that while coping with the first two, authorities are also faced with some serious issues at nuclear plants. Specifically, backup generators that are used to power pumps to cool the reactors failed when they were inundated by seawater. Why didn’t engineers plan for such possibilities when these facilities were located right on the shore? The answer is they did. Protection was provided for waves up to 6.3 meters high. Unfortunately the waves were 7. So, in the long run, all of the problems were caused by a little over two feet of water. This brings us to our next conclusion; plan for the worst case scenario, then plan some more.
This is probably also a good place to insert some comments about the stigma involved with nuclear incidents. At the time of Three Mile Island I was in charge of a communications center that had over 100,000 people within the ten mile emergency planning zone of an operating reactor. To many, these are classic “not in my backyard” examples. The fact that our county received no electricity from the plant didn’t add to its acceptance. Consider if you will then Japan’s unique position when it comes to radiation. Because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the underlying theme of many of their science fiction movie classics is that radiation helped create monsters like Godzilla and Rodan. The symbolism is pretty close to the surface. So, the fourth lesson is to know the concerns and fears of your citizens, and do your best to address them.
Of course, with multiple plants off line and earthquake damage to portions of the grid, power outages are going to occur. This obviously impacts individuals who rely on electricity for medical needs, and cuts off off many people from radio and television. The fifth thing that we should take away is that our disaster alerting and public information strategies have to consider widespread losses of power. Your cable TV override may work well in many cases, but not when all your homes and the television sets inside them are dark. What’s your next move then? The sixth related item is to factor prolonged outages into your continuity of operations planning (COOP), as well. NFPA1221 calls for 72 hours of generator power from a dedicated fuel source. If your tank is too small, half empty, or you’re thinking that a gas main is going to be there, I wish you luck.
Now, we’ve talked a bit about both the earthquake and the tsunami, but I’d like to visit the latter for a minute because it’s my experience that we don’t give water enough respect. Crumbling buildings and heaving earth certainly grab our attention, and those in Tornado Alley are especially sensitive to the Fujita scale. Flooding, on the other hand, creates a myriad of side issues from fires (although it seems counterintuitive that water would start a fire) to the widespread dispersal of hazardous and toxic wastes. So, sixth on the list of things to remember is that flooding is the most common and most deadly natural disaster in the United States, killing about 200 people every year.
The seventh area of concern is infrastructure. It’s going to fail. Plan on it. All three of Japan’s major wireless carriers experienced spotty service and disruptions. It should prove little comfort that a friend of mine in the telecom industry advises that Japan’s wireless networks may be more robust than ours. Also remember that those pieces of infrastructure that are still operational are going to be overloaded. Reports of slow dial tones caused by high demand for service, as well as long lines of people waiting to use phone booths that were still working are common.
I’m sure that there has also been high demand on both of Japan’s emergency numbers (1-1-9 for fire and EMS and 1-1-0 for police) but I haven’t seen any exact figures. I suspect they’re a might busy doing real work and haven’t had much time for press releases. There is, however, an interesting cultural corollary between certain societies and self-reliance, so the numbers might not be as high as imagined. Regardless, point number eight is to be proactive and accurate in press releases following major incidents, because one criticism of this event that has been often heard is that conflicting information makes getting an accurate picture difficult.
While it’s almost unfathomable to look at the damage and think positive thoughts, there is an age-old caveat that can be applied here. Item number nine is that timely advanced warning works. Japan has been in the forefront of both earthquake and tsunami detection, and despite the staggering losses, the death toll will nowhere near approach that of similar incidents that have occurred in less protected countries.
Finally, as of this writing, the injured, dead, or missing topped 40,000 and the displaced came to slightly less than one half million. Certainly, there are telecommunicators, families, and friends who are counted in that number. When any disaster – be it this or Hurricane Katrina – impacts such a large area, it is impossible that it will not hit close to home. The last “must do” that the 9-1-1 community can learn from the tragedy in Japan is to never forget your own when you are planning; because without them, all other plans are of no use at all.
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.
Earthquake impact area map via usgs.gov