Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Emergency Response Planning – Process

The whole point of emergency response planning is to think about what can go wrong in advance and establish the initial response parameters. This allows for everyone to start responding in a coordinated manner while allowing for the incident commander to get established, collect information on the actual incident, and to formulate a specific plan for dealing with the situation on the ground.

No one expects the plan to provide enough information to bring the incident to a successful resolution; there are just too many variables and no two incidents are exactly the same. The military has a very old saying; no plan survives contact with the enemy. The plan establishes who starts out doing what and gets everyone moving in the same direction, allowing the commander to get the timely information necessary to actually start a coherent, situation-specific response.

Types of Incidents

The first step in the emergency planning process is to identify the incident to which the plan is supposed to respond. Since we have been using the gas pipeline regulation as the basis for this series of blogs we will continue with that here. In an earlier posting I established the four incidents covered in the current regulations {§192.615(a)(3)} and two additional incidents that I proposed adding to that list. Other regulations will identify other incidents that require similar emergency response planning processes to be initiated. These gas pipeline incidents are:

• Gas detected inside or near a building.
• Fire located near or directly involving a pipeline facility.
• Explosion occurring near or directly involving a pipeline facility.
• Natural disaster.
• Pipeline overpressure
• Loss of pipeline pressure
Each of these incidents is going to require a different initial response and will even start out with different people in charge of the response, but all of these situations could involve a number of different agencies and the pipeline operator getting involved in the response effort. That is why the role of the FEMA Emergency Response Coordinator (ERC) is so important; the ERC ensures that all applicable agencies are involved in the planning process.

Identifying Incidents

The next thing that must be done as part of the emergency planning process is to identify which parameters will call for the initiation of each plan. For example, with our first incident listed above someone is going to call 911 or the gas company complaining of smelling gas. Thus when a caller says “I smell gas” or “I think I have a gas leak” this will trigger the call receiver to initiate that emergency response plan.

While it may seem obvious what would initiate each of these responses, it will take some careful consideration in establishing these initiation parameters. The FEMA ERC will have to ensure that all response agencies agree on the incident indicators that will trigger which response.

Incident Command

The next most important part of the initial response plan is the designation of who makes decisions and when initial response escalates to a level requiring a change in authority. For instance with the gas detected incident, the initial responsibility for determining if there is, in fact, a gas leak will probably rest with a gas company technician even though there may be police and or fire representatives on site. That technician will then determine if it is a simple ‘shut off a valve and open some windows’ situation or if the leak is severe enough to require a building evacuation.

The former will continue to be handled by the technician while the later will escalate to a situation requiring the establishment of an on-scene commander from one of the public emergency response agencies. The parameters for incident command escalation need to be clearly spelled out in the emergency plan.

Initial Response

Every incident is going to require a timely initial response of people to the scene to establish exactly what is happening with the incident. Again looking at the gas detected incident, it seems clear that a technician from the pipeline operator needs to be involved in the initial response to determine if there is actually a gas leak, the extent of the leak, and what type of response is needed to stop the leak.

What other emergency personnel need to show up on the initial ‘I smell gas’ call needs to be determined by local circumstances. Local officials may determine that a police patrol car will need to respond to provide legal back-up for the gas company technician. Another locality might decide that, if available, a fire truck might need to head in the direction of the call on a non-emergency basis to be more immediately available if needed. All of this needs to be spelled out in the ERP for this type incident so that dispatchers, both pipeline and emergency response, know who to notify to respond to the incident.

One good way to determine what types of initial response need to be included in the plan is to conduct a couple of table top exercises to see what types of things might happen in an incident and what resources need to be involved to handle those expected problems. The FEMA ERC would conduct these exercises using scenarios based on actual situations from around the country. FEMA would develop standard generic scenarios with the local ERC plugging in local data (weather, locations, personnel, etc) into those scenarios. After action reviews of these exercises will go a long way in determining what types of resources need to respond to an initial incident.

Response Escalation

Everyone in the emergency response community knows that the simplest incident can quickly escalate into a major multi-agency catastrophe. Again using the ‘I smell gas’ call, we can see that most responses will be successfully handled by the pipeline operator’s technician responding to the scene. Most such incidents will be loose connections, or blown out pilot lights, potentially dangerous but readily resolved.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. The gas smell may be coming from a leaking main or building feeder line. Or the gas may have been leaking from a small leak for long enough to permeate an entire apartment building with explosive levels of gas. The first responder needs to be trained to identify these larger problems quickly so that the response can be appropriately escalated.

Again the emergency planning process needs to identify these escalation points and determine the immediate response to the escalating situation. A good rule of thumb to use to determine how much escalation must be covered in the emergency response plan is that if a trained incident commander is not currently in place and in charge, then the situation should be covered by the ERP. This allows the incident commander time to get into place, identify the critical elements of the situation and formulate a specific plan for that specific situation.

Public Information

Keeping the public appropriately informed is an important part of the emergency response. In the simplest instance this includes the pipeline operator providing gas users with information about what to do in the event of a suspected gas leak in their house. Or it may be police officers directing traffic around an area with a suspected gas main leak. On the high end it may a large scale evacuation notice.

All potential communications with the public need to be identified in the emergency response plan. This identification of who is authorized to decide that the communication is appropriate and whom will be responsible for making the communication. It may be a good idea to include major local press outlets in this planning process, that way they will know where to go to get authoritative information in the event of an emergency.

Proper Prior Planning….

A good emergency response plan will handle most emergency situations, preventing escalation into major events that can cause extensive loss of life and significant damage to physical infrastructure. A clear delineation of who is responsible for what will help to eliminate the confusion and counter-productive efforts that can waste so much time and effort.

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