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Life is beginning to return to normal following the past two years of the pandemic, but the world is still as unpredictable as ever. When it seems as though one catastrophic situation is coming to an end, another tends to emerge as the newest public safety issue. One set of threats that will persist is weather and climate-related natural disasters.
Although emergency preparedness professionals cannot eliminate earthquakes, hurricanes, freezes, and wildfires, they can take steps to mitigate the impact natural disasters have on local communities. Peak wildfire season is quickly approaching and, in states like California and Oregon, emergency personnel are reviewing and revising their procedures and protocols to counteract the inevitable. As officials and residents brace for future wildfires, it is critical for local and state emergency managers to have an updated disaster preparedness strategy and emergency management platform in place.
Officials must ask themselves how prepared their region is to respond to wildfires. To answer this question, crisis personnel often look to the most recent local or regional disaster and assess their communications, coordination, and overall response. However, focusing on a single disaster does not provide the bigger picture. In 2020, for example, wildfires caused $16.5 billion in direct damages, leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans displaced. In addition, the dangers and damages will continue to grow as wildfires become increasingly destructive due to wildland-urban interference.
Wildfires require collaborative efforts across jurisdictions. To create a proactive and effective response, a common operating picture is a must.
For crisis teams to succeed, an actionable and updated emergency response strategy must be in place. Human activities – unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, equipment malfunctions, and arson – cause most wildfires, which can happen anywhere. Community leaders can streamline the process of maintaining situational awareness by utilizing emergency management software that allows organizations to automate workflows, organize their crisis strategy, and distribute mass notifications during an emergency. Automation enables stakeholders to collaborate more effectively in response to a crisis or emergency and develop a real-time common operational picture.
Proactive Wildfire Response
Emergency managers often have some form of response plan in place for wildfire response. However, the plan may no longer be genuinely proactive and effective. Many emergency plans have used the same documentation and antiquated processes for decades. Utilizing an emergency management platform makes it easier and quicker for community crisis managers to update the necessary elements in a disaster preparedness strategy. Such collaboration allows local and state officials to plan the required efforts to save lives, minimize damage or property loss, and improve the continuity of business operations. A full-fledged proactive emergency response strategy should include:
An updated emergency operations plan – This plan provides necessary and easy-to-follow steps during a disaster while at the same time ensuring the process meets compliance standards. The strategy must work in a situation where, if one employee is incapacitated and unable to perform their duties, another employee can immediately take over their role.
Updated contact information – This information ensures that the appropriate stakeholders are contacted across multiple channels without delay.
Enhanced hazard mitigation plan – This plan ensures the safety of employees, citizens, community property, and infrastructure.
Prioritization and allocation of local and state resources – These efforts ensure the continuity of operations during an emergency or disaster.
Complete list of emergency supplies and equipment – Along with the location of each item, this list ensures that supplies and equipment are accessible when needed.
Successful crisis management software systems and plans are designed with a careful understanding of the needs of emergency personnel. From there, workflows are put in place to address specific needs. Before deploying any plan or system, testing procedures and operations through drills is essential. These tests should be performed regularly, especially with new personnel.
Creating a Common Operating Picture
Emergency management platforms enable local and state officials to create a common operating picture. One of the most crucial elements of emergency management is the need for effective internal and external communication networks. Emergency managers should be able to access critical data anytime and anywhere. In the event of a wildfire, officials must be able to disseminate information efficiently and effectively to the necessary parties. Any communication lapse could potentially come at the cost of human life. With so many lines of communication responding to a wildfire, antiquated systems can lead to errors and wasted time.
Crisis teams need to respond to wildfires without taking time to bridge data boundaries and communication gaps while simultaneously reacting to a fire. With an emergency communication system incorporated into the emergency management platform, responders can share data and make critical workflows accessible to everyone through desktop and mobile device notifications. When correctly set up, this accessibility covers people internally and externally, so everyone is on the same page.
Chalk Mt. Fire (Source: Texas Division of Emergency Management July 2022).
Building Muscle Memory
Without training and practice, the best technology will be limited in effectiveness. Proper training and exercise go hand in hand with any emergency response plan. State and local officials must be adequately trained in crisis management to have a comprehensive emergency management system. Without extensive training, a common operating picture will mean very little. Training and exercises build muscle memory and span various levels of intensity. For example, organizations may choose to use their emergency response software for daily workflows to maintain familiarity. Others may conduct regular drills and tabletop exercises. The most sophisticated organizations use extensive simulation-based technology to practice multi-disciplinary and multi-domain responses.
Emergency managers who successfully control the effects of wildfires and natural disasters must invest in an emergency management system and response plan and create organizational muscle memory. Wildfires and other natural disasters are unavoidable and will happen regardless of the precautions taken. So, having the best possible plan and response system in place is crucial for alleviating the costs, damages, and emotional toll resulting from these seasonal natural disasters.