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Lessons learned from catastrophic events

How can emergency responders learn from historic, worst-case scenario events?


Editor's note: A rescue team in Virginia was deployed to Japan this week to help search for survivors. It's the same team that was sent to Haiti after the earthquake last year, where they made more than a dozen rescues. Editorial Advisor Art Hsieh says in major events, calm heads and preparation will go a long way to survival and recovery.

Updated March 11, 2015

Perhaps once in a career will public safety responders have to face catastrophic events such as the Japan earthquake of a magnitude 8.9 and tsunami.

Even the most prepared, most thought out response plans go out the window when the disaster is historic.

In this March 11, 2011, file photo, an Earthquake-triggered tsunami sweeps the shores along Iwanuma in northern Japan. The magnitude 8.9 earthquake slammed Japan's eastern coast four years ago, unleashing a 13-foot (4-meter) tsunami that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, File) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT
In this March 11, 2011, file photo, an Earthquake-triggered tsunami sweeps the shores along Iwanuma in northern Japan. The magnitude 8.9 earthquake slammed Japan's eastern coast four years ago, unleashing a 13-foot (4-meter) tsunami that swept boats, cars, buildings and tons of debris miles inland. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, File) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT

Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indonesian tsunami are other events that are of that equivalent. However, even in these major events, calm heads and preparation will go a long way to survival and recovery.

As the event in Japan continues to unfold, now with search and rescue teams from other countries helping with recovery of victims, keep track of these developing lessons:

1) Prolonged delay in government response might be the norm

I think the concept of a three-day window after a catastrophic event, where no major government resources will be available, is being thrown out that window.

Katrina showed it took at least five days, if not more, before resources could be delivered to the hardest-hit areas. Today, there are still villages in Japan that have not seen a government-supported response. Citizens must be prepared to be self-sufficient during the time immediately after the event. Do you have an earthquake kit? Hurricane kit?

2) Major events take a long time to mitigate.

There must be enough shelter, food and comfort supplies to support a large scale operation that may last weeks, even months.

3) Disasters are usually complex; involving multiple incident types

Disasters can be multifaceted, all of which consumes resources and are difficult to prioritize. Most of our disaster response plans involve one single event.

4) Interagency cooperation is fully tested during catastrophic events.

The long-term success in Japan will depend heavily on its government's ability to coordinate and deliver essential resources to the right places at the right time. Locally, emergency responders will have to work very closely to be as efficient and effective as possible.

5) Despite the event, life goes on.

Emergency responders and citizens alike need to achieve some sense of normalcy as soon as possible. Even those folks not in the disaster areas are being affected by mounting shortages in supplies and power. It will take the calm, confidence and effectiveness of emergency and long-term disaster responders to help society move back toward normal, which may take years.

My thoughts go out not only to the Japanese citizens, but especially to the EMS, fire, police and military personnel who are trying their best to provide safety, comfort and care during the most trying of times.

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