Urgent Matters

Some things you can't prepare for — but you have to try (with related video)

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In May of last year, a devastating tornado ripped through Southwest Missouri, flattening the city of Joplin and destroying much of the surrounding region. Two representatives of the Jasper County Emergency Services Board — Executive Director April Tarrant and Training Coordinator Kima Montgomery — spoke at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference this week in Minneapolis. During their session, they offered some advice based on what they learned from this event. Amazingly, the advice didn't include, "Live somewhere else if you have the chance."

The region is prone to tornadoes, but this one was something else. It started as an F1 tornado. It seems silly to write those words, because any tornado is an incredibly dangerous event. But in this case, an F1 pales in comparison to what the Joplin region experienced. According to Tarrant, three separate vortexes combined in a perfect storm scenario to create an F5 monster.

At its peak, the tornado was a mile wide — think about that for a second. Its winds peaked at 220 miles per hour — or 65 miles greater than a category 5 hurricane, which is considered catastrophic. Its track was 22 miles long. It destroyed or severely damaged 2,000 businesses. It moved a hospital — the whole thing — off its foundation by six inches. It not only lifted houses off their foundations, it tore the foundations out of the ground. It killed 116 people. It caused seasoned storm trackers to openly weep in its aftermath, Tarrant said.

Response obviously was difficult. Some people who were trapped or injured in some areas of the county had to wait hours — even days — to be rescued, oddly because the first responders that were flocking to the area did what their instincts told them to do, Montgomery said.

"There were many people trapped, but we couldn't give them pre-arrival instructions until someone was with them, and we didn't know when someone was going to be with them." Montgomery said. "It could be hours, and for some it was days. That's because, as some of the responders traveled through the path of destruction … they stopped where they first saw patients. They set up posts right at the first people that they found."

Clearly, there is nothing one can do to prepare for an event of this magnitude. Nevertheless, Tarrant and Montgomery shared what they learned from this event this week. Lesson number one: Make sure that you can read a map.

"How many of you are so hung up on electronics that you forget how to read a map," Tarrant said. "We now are taking our trainees physically out to the field with a map, so that they can learn to navigate. … When there are no landmarks, road signs or street signs for first responders to reference to, you have to be able to read a map, and an electronic map isn't always the best way to do that. An electronic will have those landmarks, but if they no longer exist, you have to be able to visualize them in your head."

Jasper County 911 also has made it a point to make sure that each of its employees has reviewed its "system failure book," which, as its name implies, lists every system employed by the center and contains instructions on what to do when they fail.

"I'll be honest — not everyone had used that systems failure book until after the tornado," Tarrant said. "We had it, and we were aware of where it was — it's a big red book — but not everyone had been able to have the opportunity to touch everything systems-wise. Making sure that you have that available to all of your staff is so important. You have to know what to do when your CAD system fails."

Documenting everything also is critically important, according to Tarrant.

"Have you ever dealt with FEMA for reimbursement? Nothing against FEMA, but the paperwork trail is enormous," Tarrant said. "If you're not paying attention to what's going on and keeping track of it, you will forget." To that end, Tarrant recommended that 911 center managers invest in digital audio recorders that they can use to dictate notes.

There was a lot more discussed in this session, and I will share it in an upcoming column.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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