Inside disaster training: Why it takes practice to make perfect

The fire chief cocked his head towards the radio clipped to his shoulder. “Everyone ready?” he asked, and then in a voice that just might have been authority itself announced: “OK, an 8.1 earthquake has just struck Berkeley. Everyone evacuate out to the back lot.”

Like students at a fire drill, 32 Alameda County residents dressed in green high-visibility vests and hard hats rose from their seats, pushed in their chairs and filed out the door.

Towards them ran a 13-year-old girl, dripping with fake blood and screaming. We knew she was a volunteer victim, but she was very convincing. It didn’t feel like a drill anymore. My heart rate accelerated, my breathing came fast and shallow, my bloodstream flushed with stress hormones. I was, at the physiological level, getting dumber while my body prepared itself to survive in its own antediluvian way.

The back lot was soon an assembly of green hard hats. We looked at each other with expectation while sizing up the jets of propane-fed flames shooting from the base of a four-story training tower.

Who wants to be Incident Commander and get this show on the road? I was already feeling the adrenaline and, when no one immediately volunteered, I stepped into the vacuum and started to assign team leads. We set up a command post, unloaded supplies from a depot, unfolded a shelter tent and started doing the paperwork necessary to keep everyone together and organized.

Six minutes into the exercise, I knew I was screwed. The consequences of my very first decisions were already biting me back hard and I knew they would continue to do so until the exercise ended. I just had to make do. I swore and tried to regain my composure. I was still swearing under my breath when two of the three Safety Sweeps I sent out to check for hazards came back.

“We died,” one said sheepishly. “We weren’t wearing our gloves and there was a downed power line.” I told the Communications Officer to put a blast on the radio to remind teams to wear PPE. A few minutes later, the two dead rescuers miraculously re-spawned and showed up in the EMS tent tending to the stream of victims trailing fake blood as they were escorted out of the tower. I had no idea where the third Sweep was or if he had joined another group.

A cluster of rescuers jostled for my attention on the hot tarmac while my Operations Officer was sullenly doodling at a folding table. The scene wasn’t a good one. Search and Rescue was ready to enter the building, but they don’t have flashlights. The EMS team dragged a dummy around in search of the and morgue that hadn’t been set up yet. Already I was hot and tired and micromanaging a situation that I didn’t fully understand. My Communications Officer was so overwhelmed with new reports that he started dispatching them of his own accord. We did the best we could. I apologized a lot.

Forty five agonizing minutes later, the exercise mercifully wrapped up. The victims were no longer limping or screaming but sat quietly in the shade sipping bottled water fresh from an ice chest. Some were picking at the movie-prop wounds that covered their faces and limbs. The Chief of the Berkeley Police Department, sweating in full firefighting regalia, announced that the professionals had arrived and that control of the situation would be transferred to him after I delivered a final status report. The lot was silent as they waited to hear how we had done.

How many rescuers were there? I didn’t know anymore.

How many victims did you successfully pull from the building and how many still needed medical attention? I counted up the tally marks and struggled to read the hurried scribbling that wandered all over the paperwork we had used. Some of the victims were labelled “M.” Was that for “moderately injured?” Or “male?” Or “medium well?” 12? Or therebouts….?

“What is the status of the buildings?” Two were stabilized, searched and the utilities successfully shut off.

“What about the third building?” Wait, there were three buildings?

It was a disaster, though thankfully not on the same scale as the one we were trying to act out. In our debrief, the Chief read notes from a clipboard and weaved back and forth between the conciliatory “this was a tough exercise, you did very well for a group so new to this” and  the hard truths “you forgot everything and if this were real everyone would have died.”

There were failures at almost every level.

The hardest, most counter-intuitive lesson of the whole weekend was ‘hurry up and wait.’ Take a breath. Stay calm. Get organized. You can only help others when you have collected yourself. In my haste to do good, I neglected to create a robust chain of command that could adapt and work well as a team. With different units unclear who to report to, it was impossible to know what was going on, who was in trouble, who needed backup and where not to follow where others ran into issues. I felt like I had failed in the first 30 seconds but in many ways this was the point of the exercise.

Not one single human being makes good decisions in an emergency. Emergencies by their nature are unpredictable, confusing and overwhelming.  You will not be able to rely on reason or improvisation to keep you safe because no matter how smart you are, your reason will not work in the chaos and your reflexes are finely tuned to an environment that contained far more lions than gas mains and broken glass.

To avoid having to make decisions in that environment, you must practice so that when disaster strikes they are not decisions at all but reflexes. Once you have a five gallon bucket filled with extra batteries and canned foods, the best thing you can do for your own disaster preparedness is to run an update on your brain’s outdated software.

Resiliency Maps is doing something similar. The execution of an effective disaster response plan is less in the skill of the first responders than the preparation of the entire community before there’s an incident: having the information infrastructure up, the maps in hand, the contacts checked, the relationships in place.

I’ll be blogging from the ESRI User Conference in San Diego where I’ll be learning and connecting with members of the emergency response geospatial community to see how others are preparing their communities to survive and thrive after disruptions and how Resiliency Maps can deliver the best mapping solutions to at-risk communities.

ESRI has been a geospatial industry behemoth, providing analytical software to everyone from city water departments to the Department of Homeland Security and, while their stranglehold grip on the geospatial industry has given me pause, there’s no doubt that they are the global leader in the field. I’m looking forward to seeing the cutting edge of how GIS is being put to work and bringing it back over the next week.

Our rescue team took a break for lunch and chatted about the exercise. About how stressful it was to perform triage, how different it would be in the dark or in the rain, how daunting it was to imagine if the exercise lasted the 3-5 days it would probably actually take for help to arrive. We reset the scenario and this time we took ten whole minutes to organize before dispatching a single team. We knew how the paper work was used, how the equipment worked. We made fewer decisions, we followed the script. And we succeeded.

About the author

A conservationist at heart and a geographer in mind, he’s spent eight years of his career at all stages of the geospatial data management life cycle in utilities, environmental consulting and big tech. Disaster recovery, ocean science and VR-capable 3D maps that function at the intersection of environmental science and advanced technology are among his greatest cartographic passions. He teaches Introduction to Cartography at City College of San Francisco and is an active member of his local community emergency response team. Check out his portfolio here or more about him on LinkedIn find him on Twitter.

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash


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