In late August 2005, a storm that started as a tropical depression over the Bahamas gathered strength and slammed into the Gulf Coast of the United States. The storm was Hurricane Katrina, and it resulted in one of the most widespread and costly disasters in American history. On a warm September day in 2009, not unlike any other day in American Samoa, an earthquake and a resulting tsunami turned the world upside down for local residents. More than 189 fatalities were reported, and hundreds were left injured across the islands.
We have all heard the cliché that disasters can happen anywhere at any time, and from our experience it is absolutely true. Disasters can be sudden events, like an earthquake, or they can come about more slowly, like the radiation leaks from radioactive waste storage locations in Hanford, Washington. They happen on both large and small scales; yet, we still see apprehension in preparing—both at the individual and at the community level. Many people dismiss these events as so unlikely that preparation would be a waste of time; others worry they’ll sound alarmist if they suggest that worst-case scenarios should be dealt with through planning or purchasing and stockpiling resources.
Within the overall emergency response framework, we as safety and health professionals can and should play a key role in both preparedness and response activities. We are uniquely positioned to have a profound impact on the response—not just to address the safety and health of those affected but also to help our organizations and the community at large to “weather the storm.”
Because of their day-to-day roles in organizations, safety and health professionals are better prepared than most to shift to key positions in both planning for and responding to an emergency. For example, as a safety and health professional, you likely know the key people both in management and the line staff. You know the location, likely effects, and routes of entry for critical risks and hazards (such as chemicals stored at your site) to your work force, responders, and the general public. You know how to talk to or train others about risk and risk management. Your knowledge and skills are often critical during an emergency response. This is especially true if your company is an active member in your local emergency planning commission: you might already know those who will likely respond, such as the local fire department or hazardous materials response team.
Planning is about the local geographic area as much as it is about the work performed at your site and its associated hazards. For example, if you are not in an earthquake-prone region, there is very little reason to plan for an earthquake; however, if you are in a hurricane-prone region, you need to plan for sustained strong winds and large amounts of rainfall—the latter especially if you are in a flood-prone area. Most of us know the hazards we are likely to face, but even so, a Google search on the history of your geographic region—or, better yet, a phone call to a local emergency manager—might shed light on some overlooked hazards and additional planning that may be required. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey claim that 42 states are at risk—16 at high risk—for earthquake damage. Often overlooked in this high-risk area is the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which is near the borders of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee.
During an actual event—such as an earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, or other disaster—industrial hygienists and safety and health specialists can have a critical role in emergency response and play a longer-term role in recovery. Whether we are part of a large-scale response effort or a consultant for a small company that was directly affected by a disaster, our specialty knowledge is critical. It’s easy for us to dismiss this fact and say these roles would fall to someone else, but
they fall to someone else? Should we leave many of these decisions, which can be matters of life and death, in the hands of someone unknown to us—or, perhaps, to no one at all in the early stages of a disaster?
It’s easy to become hyper-focused on the immediate devastation, but the disaster is just the beginning.
As safety and health professionals, the very way we look at the world tends to be from a safety perspective. Due to the nature of our training, knowledge, and work histories, we tend to see the world through a lens of risk and its potential. Because of these traits, we can play many important roles within a disaster response. For larger responses—those for which a more formal incident response organization has been established—we tend to gravitate toward such positions as safety officers, assistant safety officers, technical specialists, and field observers, depending on our IH and safety qualifications, our experience, and the needs of the response. But an IH or safety and health professional can fill other roles, too. For smaller incidents, you may be asked to advise a company during reconstitution of its assets or aid in other continuity-of-operations activities. Because of your background, in addition to performing safety work on site, you may be asked to provide phone consultation and fill in for others, or coordinate additional support or resources.
When a disaster strikes, there are a number of issues to consider. First, it’s easy to become hyper-focused on the immediate devastation, but the disaster is just the beginning. Most of us aren’t first responders, and, with the exception of providing facility-specific information, we would not likely be involved until the emergency phase has run its course and the crisis has somewhat stabilized.
After the emergency phase is over, there is almost always a long road to reconstitution. To help prepare for what is likely to come, you should follow federal guidance from FEMA on recommended planning activities and potential supplies to consider food, water, medicines, and toiletries for each member of your household or workplace. In addition to the checklists and resources from FEMA, if you do find yourself in the middle of a disaster, the following are a few basic tips.
Take care of yourself before taking care of others.
You can’t help anyone if you’re injured or incapacitated. It’s also important to know your personal capabilities, both mental and physical, and work within those constraints. Ask yourself, for example, whether you require any additional health-related support, like medical treatments or medications.
Consider your family and significant others—including pets—as part of your planning activities.
First responders and their families can be victims or affected by disasters. To help your family respond—which in turn means you’ll be more focused on the larger-scale emergency—think about what they’ll need to do and how they’d do it both if you are there or if you are not. Identify a “bug-out” location that everyone will evacuate to if a disaster hits. Set up a communication plan so that everyone calls the same person—ideally out of the area—to report their location and status. The more family members you include and the more detailed the group makes this planning effort, the better off everyone will be.
Understand the limitations of your equipment, especially available personal protective equipment and instruments (for example, air monitoring).
Understanding which situations you can and—more importantly—can’t deal with is crucial.
Have physical copies of your most important references ready and in your go-kit.
During a disaster, power is often a luxury, the internet might also be out, phone lines will likely be jammed, and functional computers—especially those connected to printers with the needed ink and paper—will be in short supply. So, you need to plan on bringing what you need.
Consider carrying the NIOSH Pocket Guide; the ACGIH TLV/BEI Guide; the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Handbook, which can serve as an ICS primer; and any personal references you will need based on where you’re going (such as maps, printed directions, and hospital information) and what you’re going to be dealing with (for example, safety data sheets for known released hazmat).
As was suggested earlier, you can’t go far in the response world before the topic of ICS is brought up. ICS is a command structure designed to allow for the most efficient integration of federal, state, local, and private-industry response entities. This structure establishes a universal language so that all entities can communicate effectively, and it clearly delineates and defines roles that are necessary for an effective response. The system is scalable, expanding or contracting according to the needs of the incident commanders, who are determined based on the size of the incident, politics, legal roles and responsibilities, and public interest.
Incident commanders are the people in charge of and who set the objectives for the overall response. Every incident always has an IC. Generally speaking, small-scale events are led by a single IC, whose job it is to initially lead the response until relieved by someone more capable. Examples of those who might be initial ICs include a local police officer, the captain of the local fire department, a tank truck operator who was just involved in a wreck, or the master of a cargo ship that just went aground. ICs are responsible for:
  • establishing and maintaining liaisons with other agencies participating in the response
  • ensuring overall incident safety
  • providing information services to internal and external stakeholders, including disaster survivors, agency executives, and senior officials
Larger events usually have multiple ICs, who collectively—when communicating and working together—are called the unified command. One former lead Coast Guard response officer compared establishing a unified command for a major oil spill to putting together a Fortune 500 company overnight with partners who may not like each other and have different initial objectives. The UC generally includes a senior lead federal agency representative, a lead state representative, a local/community representative, and a private sector representative. Together, these lead representatives pool their authorities, responsibilities, and resources to set the overall incident objectives and coordinate the response.
Under the UC is the command and general staff. The general staff includes the operations, planning, logistics, and finance sections responsible for addressing current operations, planning for future needs, obtaining the needed resources (including both people and equipment), and tracking the cost of the incident, respectively. The command staff includes the public information officer, liaison officer, and safety officer (SOFR).
The SOFR monitors overall incident conditions and develops measures for ensuring the safety of all personnel. The SOFR is responsible for advising the IC on issues regarding incident safety, conducting risk analyses, and implementing safety measures.
The positions of the SOFR and any assistant safety officers are a natural fit for many IHs. This staff can directly affect operations by setting PPE, stay times, and work/rest ratios; developing safety messages; and managing investigations into worker injuries.
In general, the SOFR is someone who completes a specific qualification process that trains him or her in how to effectively lead the safety aspect of a response within the ICS structure. Someone untrained in ICS is unlikely to be thrown into the SOFR position.
The Assistant Safety Officer (ASO) position, however, can be staffed by any capable person, especially an IH. The ASO is an extension of the SOFR, often the person embedded with operations as boots on the ground. The job of the ASO is to oversee the safety aspect of operations and report updates and issues to the SOFR.
Another role that an IH might fill based on his or her general knowledge base is a technical specialist (THSP), which falls under either the planning section or the operations section. An IH in a THSP role can advise the SOFR, planning section, and/or operations section on IH or safety-specific issues, such as air monitoring or chemical response recommendations to deal with an inventory at a company that was affected by an earthquake.
Since IHs can effectively fill many critical roles within the ICS structure, it’s important to find out before a crisis what your employer expects of you.
Members of AIHA’s Incident Preparedness and Response Working Group are often asked how IHs can be involved in a disaster. The answer depends on the individual and his or her role as well as the expectations of the employer and the community. Whether you’re sifting through debris in the aftermath of a tsunami, helping your company reconstitute after an earthquake, or preparing yourself and your charges to mitigate the potential damage caused by a chemical release, you as IHs can and do provide critical knowledge, experience, and know-how. Not only can you improve the safety of those around you, but you can also have a profound effect on the response as a whole by playing an essential role in an ICS.
is the response department head at Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, Valdez, Alaska, and a DHS-FEMA Type 3 ICS Safety Officer. He can be reached via
is a retired Coast Guard commander. He is currently the director of safety and health at the consulting firm ICF. He can be reached via
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New Insight on the Nation’s Earthquake Hazards
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USGS Collaborates with FEMA on National Earthquake Loss Estimate
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Responsibilities for OEHS Professionals in an Incident
Command System