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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

Date: 2011-03-18
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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


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Posted by: Jim229
Date: 2011-03-23 10:30:11
Title: Retired Instructor
Subject: Lesson Learned

I know what I have seen from this: A portable back up is a must have. Not for 911 phones as the phones are non existent except for Sat Coms, but for Emergency Services tracking. The NIMS configuration can work but will most likely need to be expanded in such a situation. Police, Fire, EMS, Rescue, Emergency operations. I say this because trying to track all of this in one system would be a nightmare and all are needed. Each element should be a standalone box system that everyone is trained to use on a regular basis. A portable Sat Com can be used to establish a wireless network to link them all to the command center or Emergency Operations. Phones would be nice but let's be realistic, there are no phones to use out there at the moment so they are not a necessity. Does NIMS support these functions, yes but in a different configuration although I believe it works, I also believe it could be better. The main thing I have seen, mostly because it is obvious, is a need for a real portable, pull it out of a box type management system that allows tracking of units and logging of activity. From what has been published most of this has been done from a pen and paper method that is slow and ineffective. The need for speed in getting information to people, especially emergency workers, is a necessity. The additional problem of the Reactor problems creates a whole new dynamic as Radiation, and in the case of a Melt Down EMP, destroy electronics and networks. Sat Com would help with this but it would not eliminate it. Now, having said all of this please keep in mind that these are observations made from the outside looking in. The devastation is obvious, there are no Radio Towers and no buildings that could even be considered usable for for Emergency communications. Even if a center had an underground facility it is unlikely that it survived or could in anyway be effective in a command and control function. In a situation such as this you have to accept there is going to be a period when there is absolutely no command and control and the focus must be to establish that command and control as quickly and efficiently as possible. Now, it doesn't matter what that solution is as long as everyone uses it or it has the ability to integrate with the tools others are using. Here in the US we have a solution ready now and the technology. Several boxes with laptops, a Portable generate, and several CD's with a Linux based OS, Apache Server, PHP, and MySql in a ready to install package with a Sat COM and Dual Processor Laptop to act as the Server and network Hub and a program like Tickets. No, I am not advertising or Marketing this and do not mean to imply that this is the only solution. My point is all of this is PRIOR Planning, Prevents Poor Performance. If you operate in an area that is prone to these type of devastating events, and when I say prone I mean subject to the possibility, you owe it to the Citizens you protect to prepare for the worst case scenario. If that means Ham Radio operators or CB Walkie talkies and that will serve your needs then you should have those stored, regularly checked and tested and train personnel. These men and women were working under conditions we can only imagine and when it fell apart, and we all know it did, they did what they could. I hope I never have to face a situation like this. The closest I can think of in the US would be Katrina and as devastating as that was it pales in comparison to what they went through and are still going through in Japan. I am sure the government there is doing everything it can but is simply overwhelmed. Are there more lessons to learn, yes and we as professionals should pay close attention in how that is done because we can learn from this and if nothing else holds true, I can confidently say we will see more situations like this in the future. It may be 50 years from now but it will happen and if the same mistakes are made then that were made when this occurred then we will have failed our Citizens. Jim Young

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