‘A genius decision’: How lessons learned impacted first responder efforts in 2021

Thousands of miles apart, two public safety professionals point to detailed plans as the reason for their organizations' disaster response success


If 2021 hadn’t so clearly been the “Year of the Vaccine,” it may have been known as the “Year of the Natural Disaster,” following a number of responses to weather-related events over the last 12 months.

From hurricanes that battered COVID-ravaged hospitals on the Southern coast, to record-breaking heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, to flooding in subway tunnels in New York City, it seems that no area of the country was safe from Mother Nature this year.

And yet, in the midst of these unprecedented disasters, industry professionals continued to serve their communities, even as their own homes and families faced danger, putting the needs of residents above their own.

Paramedics Cody Miller, left, and Justin Jones respond to a heat exposure call during a heat wave, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Salem, Ore.
Paramedics Cody Miller, left, and Justin Jones respond to a heat exposure call during a heat wave, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Salem, Ore. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

EMS1 spoke with Marc Creswell, director of operations for Acadian Ambulance’s Air Med, headquartered in Lafayette, Louisiana, about the response to Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 hurricane that became the second most damaging and intense hurricane in the state’s history, behind Hurricane Katrina.

We also spoke with Eric Heard, a fire inspector with the Portland (Oregon) Fire Rescue, who detailed the department’s preparation and response to the record-breaking heatwave that settled over the Pacific Northwest in June 2021.

Lessons learned: Preparation is key

In Creswell’s mind, this year’s hurricane response was the most prepared Acadian Ambulance's operations team has been, particularly following a busy 2020 season that included four hurricanes and a tropical storm. In fact, Creswell points to the 2020 hurricane season as the reason for 2021’s success.

“We got into this groove where the right hand knew what the left hand was thinking,” he said. “We had the same key people in place for several years doing the same job, so that was really good.”

In Portland, Heard echoed Creswell’s perspective that preplanning was an important part of a successful response, as well as by building off the lessons learned in previous years.

“I know we had a lot of people pass away because of the heat,” Heard said of the 2020 heatwave. “We were preparing to not have a repeat of that situation. When [June’s heatwave] came along, we were pretty much organized already, just because of what we had experienced the year before with the record heatwave.”

Lessons learned in Louisiana: Resource allocation and logistics

When Mother Nature unleashes, there is no consideration taken for the homes, families and livelihoods of those responding to the disaster.  

“First responders in New York, in Portland, wherever they’re at, when there’s a major disaster, their homes get affected, too,” Creswell said. “And we expect them to come to work. Most of the time, these natural disasters take out the food service industry, it takes out their homes, so they don’t have a place to eat. They don’t have places to sleep. They don’t have places to wash their clothes. They don’t have electricity. They don’t have showers.”

In 2016, Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Southern coast, causing catastrophic flooding and killing more than 100 people. It was that storm that prompted a new way of thinking at Acadian Ambulance.

“We had the major hurricane down in Texas, and we recognized that our infrastructure to support our staff was severely lacking,” Creswell said. “We bolstered that up for Hurricane Laura that affected the southwest portion of Louisiana in 2020, but we really bolstered up before Hurricane Ida.”

In essence, Creswell described the upscaling of an entire mobile operation that included “shower facilities, washing machines, dryers, cooking facilities” and more to assist providers working the recovery efforts.

Then, in what Creswell called a “genius decision,” agency officials decided to split the assets into two forward operating bases, set up in Houma and New Orleans, the two hardest-hit areas.

“Our initial thought process was if we set up one center, then we’ve got one place to pump food to, one place to pump fuel to, one place to pump people to,” he said. “But New Orleans and Houma were both affected equally. In the central location, people would’ve had to drive between 30 and 50 miles to reach the FOB. Putting them dead in the middle of the highest density of employees affected means they didn’t have to go so far.”

Heather Savoy, left, and her husband, Bart Savoy, prepare to grill sausage and hamburgers for hungry medics on Friday, September 3, 2021, at Acadian Ambulance's forward operating base (FOB) in Houma. (Photo/Acadian Ambulance)
Angele Davis folds laundry belonging to medics who were either working or resting between shifts on Friday, September 3, 2021, at Acadian Ambulance's Forward Operations Center (FOB) in Houma. (Photo/Acadian Ambulance)
(Photo/Acadian Ambulance)
(Photo/Acadian Ambulance)

Lessons learned in Oregon: Resident communication, after-action surveys

In Portland, as the mercury began rising, eventually reaching 116 degrees F – the highest temperature ever recorded in the city – cooling facilities were strategically erected around the city for vulnerable populations.

“We had cooling shelters running 24 hours a day, mainly based at the homeless population to give them some relief and overnight care,” Heard said. “We also had misting stations available in city parks; we basically modified popup tents with garden sprayers and connected them to the already-existing water spigots.”

As Heard worked to assist members of the community, he was able to see the impact of the lifesaving measures up close.

“I worked the last day of the cooling shelters and as we were breaking it down the next morning, you could see the concern on the faces of people who had been relying on it,” he said. “You could actually gauge their feelings toward it, like, ‘Oh no, this is going away.’”

Even though the heatwave was supposed to break later in the day, Heard understood that many residents didn’t have reliable access to news and weather reports, causing concern among those at the shelters they would be left unprotected. He said the department plans on being proactive in the coming months on providing important emergency notifications to community members using PSAs and other communications.

“I think we’re going to step it up this year with more stuff on cooling and heat emergencies,” he said. “I feel like with the information we’ve been gathering of the past two years, it’s just going to improve the way we respond and how we prepare our citizens to be aware, so they can fend for themselves in these situations.”

That’s what Portland does, he said.

“We are a city that is always trying to prep for the next emergency so we can be prepared because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Lessons learned: Embrace the suck

In the end, first responders can only prepare so much for a natural disaster. Creswell summed up the ideal mindset going into an emergency response: “It’s going to be bad, but we have got the practice, we’ve got the plan, we’ve got the infrastructure and we’ve got the intestinal fortitude to get it done.” he said.

That’s an important point, he said.

“I think that’s what carried us through all of this. Every single time, it’s going to suck, but we make the best out of it.”

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