Members of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team, Indiana Task Force 1 go into neighborhoods impacted by Hurricane Ike to search for people needing help getting out of the area.

What happens when an umbrella or a raincoat just isn’t enough?

Last week I wrote about umbrellas and raincoats and the importance of being prepared for anything from rain events to disasters. While being prepared is important, it’s not going to keep either one from happening. Umbrellas and go-bags aren’t intended to be an impervious shield. They’re designed to help you through the situation.

When a disaster happens, that kick-starts the response phase of the disaster cycle. And the first things that come to mind for many after hearing the phrase “disaster response” are the flashy, rough-cut videos of swift water rescues, cars submerged in floodwaters or driving through ferocious wildfires.

Much of what happens during the response phase is based around life safety—keeping the citizens of affected communities out of harm’s way, or rescuing them if they do find themselves in harm’s way.

Local first responders are sometimes augmented by the support of urban search and rescue teams from outside of the area, but only when they are requested; it’s all about supporting the locals and states we serve.

There are 28 elite urban search and rescue teams from all over the country that we support by providing them with special training and the funding to support local first responders.

Response is, however, far more than the news coverage and viral social media posts of rescues and retreats from flames.

Here at FEMA, our response to a disaster can include things like our disaster emergency communications vehicles that help provide connectivity in areas facing overload or failure during or after a disaster. And our logistics team prepositions, stores, ships, and maintains caches of crucial supplies (think: blankets, cots, water) that can be deployed anywhere. Our incident management assistance teams serve as right hand men and women to their state, local, and tribal counterparts when they’re deployed.

Some disasters might require of all of these teams. Some disasters might only need a few of them—depending on the magnitude of the event.

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to disaster response. It’s not like a baseball cap. It’s a lot more like a tailor-made suit. Considerations are made based on a variety of factors, to include the hazard itself, and potential cascading effects (including threats to communities and infrastructure). 

The hazard, the size and scope of damage, the weather forecast, and all other kinds of variables come into play when responding to a disaster—like we saw several times last year in the south. With Hurricane Matthew, we needed quite a few teams on the scene as the storm impacted areas across five different states.

Hazards and their impacts, and the communities themselves, are similar but also different, each having a separate set of nuances and needs—making it imperative to tailor a response to the situation.

And when all is said and done and the storm clears or the fire burns out, that’s when response ends and recovery begins…


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