Tornado response requires effective command & knowledge of different agencies’ roles

Taming the Twister
Tornado response requires effective command & knowledge of different agencies’ roles
By Mike Walker

Every community recalls history through pivotal events. For example, April 19, 1995, and Sept. 11, 2001, are both dates that changed the course of history for the United States. Most people can say where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City or the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Tornadoes often hop, skip and jump, leaving some areas destroyed and others intact. As you identify new areas of damage, assign area commanders to them, along with task forces made up of fire/rescue, law enforcement and EMS transport. Photo AP/Jaime Oppenheimer

The fire department plays a key role in tornado response because our tools and equipment allow us to search for and extract victims, cut and clear downed limbs, shut off gas meters and work in an area filled with natural gas, fall hazards and countless puncture and cut hazards. Photo courtesy Oklahoma City Fire Department

The central command post should be located in an area that affords good communication capabilities and is large enough for the agencies to have a place to work and coordinate with their crews. Photo courtesy Oklahoma City Fire Department

Pets of every kind will be on the loose after a destructive tornado. These pets will obviously be scared, and if they cannot locate their owners, they will wander and may become a nuisance. Photo AP/Sue Ogrocki

Building Triage
A key part of tornado preparation is considering the likely damage scenarios caused by a storm. Type V, wood-frame dwellings are the most vulnerable to tornado damage, followed by Type II, non-combustible buildings. Although any structure can sustain damage, the more heavily constructed Types I, III and IV buildings usually suffer localized damage but will remain standing. The lighter Type II and Type V buildings have a proven history of collapsing when exposed to very strong winds.

With this in mind, responders should devise a workable plan that targets residential areas and the associated shopping districts for first response. As the probable scenarios are identified, the different agencies can identify the challenges their people will face and recognize their limitations. Note: Planners must share information across agencies so everyone is working from the same set of expectations. If this isn’t done, each group will go into the incident with incorrect assumptions about how the other agencies will work. This, of course, will lead to a disjointed and poorly managed event.

Multi-Agency Tornado Response
Tornadoes require a coordinated response from many different agencies, including:
• Fire/rescue
• Law enforcement
• Street Department/Public Works
• Animal Control
• Utility companies (electric/gas)
• Red Cross
• State emergency management

Command Structures for Tornado Response
When needed, an ICS organization can expand into different models to fit the needs of an incident. Tornado response may require any of the following types of command structure:
• Unified Command: Multiple ICs of all major organizations involved in the incident are cooperatively  responsible for all the strategic objectives of an incident. Typically used when an incident is within multiple jurisdictions and/or is managed by multiple disciplines.
• Area Command: A single command that manages multiple incident command posts. It is established for complex incidents that have span-of-control issues.
• Unified Area Command: An area command that spans multiple jurisdictions and gives each jurisdiction appropriate representation.

To the residents of central Oklahoma, May 3, 1999, is also one of those infamous days. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Severe Storms Laboratory, “A total of 74 tornadoes touched down across the two states [Oklahoma and Kansas] in less than 21 hours. At one point, there were as many as four tornadoes reported on the ground at the same time. The strongest tornado, rated a maximum F-5 on the Fujita Tornado Scale, tracked for nearly an hour-and-a-half along a 38-mile path from Chickasha through south Oklahoma City and the suburbs of Bridge Creek, Newcastle, Moore, Midwest City and Del City. As the skies cleared, the states counted 46 dead and 800 injured, more than 8,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and total property damage of nearly $1.5 billion.”1

Although this tornado event was unprecedented, destructive tornadoes are a reality for many fire departments across the country. But remember: In addition to the actual event, people retain vivid memories of the response to natural or manmade disasters. If the response fails to meet public expectations, it may become a prominent aspect of the way the event is remembered, as was the case with the levy break after Hurricane Katrina. Though many responders performed acts of heroism worthy of notice, it was the deficient aspects of the response that drew the lion’s share of the attention.

That’s why we must be prepared to respond quickly, efficiently and safely to tornadoes. For this to occur, every agency in the jurisdiction will need to bring their “A” game and will need to understand the challenges faced by other departments that will stretch and may exceed their capabilities. Though initial damage assessments may seem catastrophic and perhaps insurmountable, the incident can be managed successfully.

Know the Roles
The agencies needed to effectively manage a post-tornado response are the very same agencies needed within the Incident Command System (ICS). Each of these agencies will play a crucial role in tornado damage mitigation and victim assistance.

The fire department will be used to rescue entrapped victims and perform fire suppression. Because the fire department is typically better versed in ICS, it will be essential in helping to organize the command system. Wildland fire apparatus, such as brush trucks and command vehicles, which are often equipped with four-wheel drive, will permit personnel quick access to areas inaccessible to larger apparatus and other two-wheel-drive vehicles. The fire department also possesses the tools necessary for victim extraction, such as chainsaws and prying tools, as well as other tools, such as wrenches, which will be needed to shut off gas meters. In addition, firefighters will likely be the only responding personnel equipped with the appropriate PPE to work in an area filled with natural gas, fall hazards and countless puncture and cut hazards.

Law Enforcement
Law enforcement will play a multi-functional role in these types of disasters. One of the most important jobs will be perimeter control. Hundreds and maybe thousands of people will descend upon the area after the storm. Some will live in the area and want to check on their families; others will be friends of the families or just curious onlookers. But the area will be too dangerous to let anyone in until it has been thoroughly investigated and major hazards like downed power lines and natural gas leaks have been alleviated. Law enforcement is the only agency that will be able to stop this virtual stampede of people.

Along those same lines, law enforcement will provide security for the area. Although the vast majority of people will only try to take care of their own situation, there are others who may try to take advantage of power outages and unsecured possessions. Finally, when deceased victims are located, local police and sheriffs are responsible for making sure that the correct process is followed for documenting deaths.

EMS’s role should be limited to the treatment and transport of victims. This is not to diminish their capabilities, but rather to maximize them. There will only be a limited number of ambulances capable of moving patients from the scene to awaiting hospitals. If EMS personnel become too engaged in the rescue or retrieval of victims, there simply won’t be anyone to treat victims’ injuries and transport them.

Another way to look at this: EMS personnel are the treatment/transport experts. First responders and basic EMTs from other participating agencies, like the fire department, are capable of patient triage, which frees up the treatment experts to do what they do best. Also, many private EMS providers do not provide their personnel the necessary PPE to safely work in the austere environment created by tornado damage.

Street Department/Public Works
Traffic signs, barricades and heavy equipment will also play a key role in the incident. The street department or public works department will work closely with both fire and law enforcement to place traffic barricades (needed for perimeter control) and temporary stop signs (needed when power outages take traffic lights out of service). The sooner suitable barriers and signs can be placed, the sooner law enforcement officers can be used in other areas.

Heavy equipment, such as backhoes, will be essential for clearing the streets of trees and other debris to give access to emergency apparatus. Coordination between the fire department and the street department will expedite street clearing in the areas it’s most needed.

Animal Control
Because fences that confine pets will likely be blown over and the houses they lived in destroyed, pets of every kind will be on the loose after a destructive tornado. These pets will obviously be scared, and if they cannot locate their owners, they will wander and may become a nuisance. Dogs left on their own will form pseudo packs and, if allowed to wander long enough, will start hunting for food wherever they can find it. The once-docile poodle or Labrador can become a genuine threat to the community.

If the event occurs in rural areas, animal control will be needed to coordinate rounding up of livestock and holding them in temporary pens until their owners can rebuild fences.

Utility Companies
Downed power lines and natural gas leaks are some of the initial hazards responding agencies and victims will encounter. After the May 3, 1999, F-5 tornado in Oklahoma City, a strong smell of natural gas lingered in the area and hardly a utility pole was left standing. Because of this, command will need to communicate which sectors of the electric grid need to be shut down until crews can finish searching the damaged areas. Until the grid is shut down, rescue attempts will be hampered as crews work to avoid downed lines and other possible shock hazards.

As crews shut off gas meters to damaged structures, the gas company will need to work on how the gas will be diverted from areas that may have hundreds of meters shut off. If this doesn’t occur, the gas pressure in the remainder of the system may become excessive. If the gas company has a way of shutting off the gas to a particular geographical area, that option should be considered, just as we shut down the electricity to specific areas of the grid. As soon as the natural gas leaks have been shut off, rescues can proceed much more safely.

Red Cross
The roles played by the American Red Cross and other non-profit disaster relief organizations cannot be overstated. Initially, they provide temporary sheltering and processing of people displaced by the storm. As the operation stretches out, loved ones of the displaced will want to know if their family members are okay. Using the Red Cross for this function will free up law enforcement and rescue personnel to do other needed tasks. As shelters are established, people coming to the shelters will be processed and the lists of names will be invaluable when attempts are made to account for everyone.
Another major role of a disaster relief organization: rehab. Eventually, all of the participating responders will need to eat and rest. Organizations like the Red Cross are usually equipped to provide this service.

State Emergency Management
State emergency management (EM) will serve multiple purposes, the first being a thorough knowledge of and contact information for the technical rescue teams and logistical support across the region or state.

The second reason to involve EM may not seem pressing during the initial hours after a tornado, but it will prove extremely important to the community: formal state and/or federal disaster declarations, which provide needed resources and financial assistance. Since only the Governor or President can make such declarations, bringing the appropriate state agency into the incident as soon as possible ensures that the decision-makers have the information they need to make a declaration. In addition, National Guard personnel can only be mustered through the office of the Governor and FEMA can only assist upon the approval of a Presidential Declaration.

Command Best Practices
Tornadoes rarely follow a predictable path. They hop, skip and jump during their life span, which creates areas with major damage, followed by a patch with little to no damage, then subsequent areas with even more damage. For this reason, it’s often advantageous to establish a Unified Command (UC) or Area Command (for more on these command structures, see the sidebar below).

The central command post should be located in an area that affords good communication capabilities and is large enough for the agencies to have a place to work and coordinate with their crews. As you identify new areas of damage, assign area commanders to them, along with task forces made up of fire/rescue, law enforcement and EMS transport. As soon as the injured are transported out of the area, the EMS branch can be demobilized to free up those resources. Note: If the damage is limited to an isolated area, say less than a mile long, a single command post will suffice. When this is the case, establish a base of operations close to the command post.

When a major tornado occurs, the tendency is to send every resource in the jurisdiction to the area. If allowed, this practice will create multiple problems. Too many responders can be worse than too few, because it leaves the remainder of the jurisdiction without emergency services and accountability of the excess responders can become problematic. Just like any other incident, responders should not respond until requested.

Instead, once the tornado leaves the area, establish a command post and form reconnaissance (RECON) strike teams. This will give command two ways of identifying areas where help is needed: calls for help to 9-1-1 and reports from RECON teams. As notifications are received, command can then request the appropriate resources. If there’s a TV in the command post, command can use reports from news helicopters to further identify damaged areas that require resources.

To help maintain control of the response to large tornadoes, dispatch should be directed to follow different protocols than it normally would. Typically, as a 9-1-1 center receives a request for help, the dispatcher contacts the agency crews to respond. In a tornado, dispatch should contact command and inform them of the request. Command can then either request additional resources to the scene or can use crews already committed to the incident.

Plan Now
It’s not possible to fully expound on all of the aspects of tornado response within the confines of a single article, but we can highlight some of the major elements required for properly mitigating the effects of a tornado. Thorough planning and expedient implementation of the plan are two key elements that will help ensure that the needs of the community are met in the most efficient manner possible. When all participating agencies fulfill their assignments and a robust unified command system is established, even incidents involving major tornadoes can be brought to a successful conclusion.

Chief Mike Walker has served with the Oklahoma City Fire Department for 21 years. He has been a battalion chief since 2007, and is a task force leader for Oklahoma Task Force-1. Walker has been a fire service instructor since 1993.

1. NOAA (n.d.) May 3, 1999, Oklahoma/Kansas tornado outbreak. In NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory. Retrieved 2011 from

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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Comment by Richard Dawson on April 25, 2011 at 6:44pm
I saw this put to use on 16 April in my community. My trailer came out better than the neighbors' houses, so I responded to the alarm and helped my department secure the street. I could hear the communication between the different agencies on my radio and unified command. ICS does work
Comment by Paul Hasenmeier on April 22, 2011 at 4:11pm
Well said. These big incidents give a true test of the ICS and how good we are at using it.
Comment by Ben Waller on April 16, 2011 at 3:47pm
Good informon, but this would have been better as a two-part or three-part series.

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