The First Disaster Preparedness Myth
For those of you who did your “homework” and read the article I linked in my announcement post, I’ll try to keep the background short and sweet. I’m writing a series of articles concerning each of a dirty dozen of Disaster Preparedness Myths that cause the most problems for residents of a disaster area.
”If something happens all I have to do is call 911.”
William Shatner helped drill this standard into our brains back in the 1980s, as the narrator for a couple of seasons of Rescue: 9-1-1. Outside of catastrophic events, at face value, this principle saves lives. Prior to the advent of an effective, professional EMS service, countless accident victims were dragged from their vehicles and stuffed into available space in another vehicle for a trip to the hospital, causing the death of many, and the permanent injury of even more. By the same token, standing outside at 3:30 AM with a garden hose trying to prevail over the fire gutting your house is so futile as to border on being a sign of some sort of mental instability. Picking up the phone to summon the fire department is unquestionably a better choice, if simply considered in terms of the sheer volume of water they can bring to bear.
The reason this concept is truth during emergency situations, but a myth during a disaster has to do with scope. Allow me to explain this concept in practical terms.
Hoisington, Kansas, is a town of approximately 2700 residents. It is served by a handful of fulltime police officers, approximately a dozen volunteer EMS personnel who rotate call, and thirty or so volunteer firefighters. On 21 April, 2001, I was one of those EMTs on-call when an F-4 tornado touched down on the west edge of town, and cut a path of destruction across the town, demolishing 182 homes and a dozen businesses in a two-block wide, eleven block long path of destruction. As the storm struck without warning (the town’s warning sirens were stymied by a loss of power during the time that they were being activated, causing them to fail) and moved with winds of up to 200 miles per hour, our town was rather massively beat up. Vehicles were flipped, trees uprooted, and I had bowling balls in my front yard from the alley three blocks away. We had one fatality, caused when the stairwell to the basement collapsed as an elderly gentleman was seeking refuge, and twenty-six injuries which required transport to the hospital in Great Bend, since one of the dozen businesses put out of commission was our hospital.
So to sum up the numbers, that’s 182 homes who don’t know where the phone is amidst the rubble, and are afraid to stay inside long enough to find it. Cell phones, which are always nice, were only available if they had been physically on your person at the time in question. Then we consider that even if only 40% of the phones were accessible, that means that the cell towers were likely overwhelmed (presuming they survived the storm) with 70 frantic calls simultaneously. And I promise that our county’s two or three dispatcher E-911 center was overwhelmed trying to field those calls as well.
Then we have to factor in debris. In many areas of town, vehicles were unable to circumnavigate fallen trees, pieces of homes, and destroyed vehicles. This meant that non-ambulatory casualties had to be accessed on foot, extracted, and carried back to waiting emergency vehicles. By the end of the evening, both Hoisington Ambulance Service vehicles were immobilized, one with four flat tires, the other from flooding caused by a follow-on severe thunderstorm. Fortunately for us, emergency response agencies representing upwards of 80 different jurisdictions and disciplines from up to 70 miles away responded to assist us in this time of need. In many cases, a volunteer agency responded with half of their personnel on their only vehicle to do what needed to be done.
It doesn’t matter what location or type of disaster is involved, disasters, by their very definition, overwhelm local capabilities. This means that there will not be enough dispatchers to take all of the emergency calls, the infrastructure and call-volume will prevent responders from making it to everywhere they are requested, and you may very well find yourself waiting hours or days for help. Being ready when this type of event comes to your home is vital to your survival, and your ability to recover. We’ll talk about standards of preparation in a later Myth.