Why EMS needs a quick disaster response

Our procedures for potential disasters are often too slow, but a rapid response based on anticipated outcomes can change that

Lois Clark McCoy is the president and co-founder of the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue. This article was adopted from her Feb. 2, 2011 speech delivered in Long Beach, Calif.

By Lois Clark McCoy

We are too slow in responding to disasters, and it is costing lives.

Yet so far, it's not a large enough number of lives to adequately gather people's attention. The number of lives lost in disaster in the U.S. is often compared to those lives lost yearly in highway crashes, and many of our communities are not seriously preparing for such a potential loss of life due to an “occasional” event.

Highway crashes and disasters are not comparable. Crashes are caused by people over whom we may have some control. Disasters are random events over which we have no control.

However, we are so slow in our response that today's small events are blooming into large disasters, and these initially small events are costing our communities and private businesses millions of dollars.

Why in this wonderful country are we so slow in stopping unexpected events from escalating while we watch the scene unfold on TV?

What is a disaster?

A basic question is, “What is a disaster?” In California, for instance, we may think of an earthquake, but there are small- and medium-sized earthquakes every day and we seldom notice them.

If you still have electricity, phone service and running water, it’s not a disaster.

A disaster is any event that has caused the interruption of the services that the community depends upon for safety, comfort, occupation, and perhaps your actual survival.

Having defined "disaster" more broadly, we can now address how to act, prepare and contain these unexpected events so as to bring the quickest resolution and end to the resulting chaos.

How to rebuild when disaster strikes

Presently, we are doing it all wrong. Our approach is to as rapidly as possible, return the community, businesses and government to their state as they were before the disaster  — which is not possible.

Time is inexorable. Once a second has passed it is gone, and there is no way to set back the clock to the way things were before the event.

A home burned to the ground may be rebuilt, but it will never be the same. A business, college, or restaurant that collapsed in a disastrous event, even if only a small part of it, can never return to its former reality. The kitchen may even be rebuilt to a more functional state, but it is still a different kitchen.

Rather than thinking that you can return to what was before, use the loses to build smarter, improve damaged sections to reflect better environments, construction, and safer occupancies. Adjust zoning regulations, expedite building permits, and focus on action and agility.

A prepared response can limit loss

The quick and rapid results that bring your community and its services up to a heightened level of service and sustainability are only possible if the initial risk assessment for the potential of a hazardous event is recognized as a potential disaster.

If that potential is not immediately contained or controlled, a small incident can escalate into a serious disaster, with far-reaching costs and possible catastrophic loss of lives.

However, this can be avoided if you consider the ramifications ahead of time.


You know you will need to find safe shelter for those most seriously affected.

Let businesses move into alternative sites to continue their provision of service, as well as keep their work force gainfully employed.

Allow trucking deliveries to markets and retailers, especially of food and equipment, to continue. Recognize that these deliveries normally occur at night, so the shelves can be restocked in the empty aisles.

Do not shut down the process of reliable deliveries with a curfew. This leads to shortages of essential requirements such as toilet paper and baby formula, and frustrated people tend to riot.

No one riots if orderly lines and adequate supplies are available; otherwise, looting takes place. There is a real difference between looting, which is stealing for resale of pilfered goods, and taking life necessities — which is survival.

Also, arrange for banks unaffected by the disaster to remain open, and ask them to make additional cash available. No store is going to take checks and all the cash registers that automatically read the bar-coded prices on each item can't operate with no electricity, so the clerks will have no idea how much items actually cost.

What others are doing right

We can also learn by looking at success stories during disasters, like Wal-Mart. They open their parking lots for overnight parking without charge to campers and trailers of those who have lost or damaged homes, but who own a mobile home of any sort. They have their security guards watch these over these “guests” in their area.

They post signs outside their doors that say they are out of stock on certain items to save potential customers from entering the crowded store in search of those expended items.

They re-supply high-demand items (batteries and personal generators for instance) from nearby areas unaffected by whatever caused the local chaos.

Most people, regardless of race, ethnic origin and our many other differences, are usually honest and willing to help others in worse straits than themselves.

Start with the realization that a proper assessment of the potential effect of any unexpected event, and rapid response to that event, will change chaos into agile and organized activity.

Rapid, pre-incident planned response permits a shorter time to return to order, and for more effective work to escalate the rate of the road to recovery. 

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