By Kathleen Ohlson - June 9, 2021
Severe weather events and natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, severe storms, wildfires and droughts, are wreaking havoc across every part of the U.S. They are happening more frequently, causing tremendous amounts of damage — often in the billions — for each event. So how do you keep your community safe when seconds matter? It starts with severe weather preparedness and understanding the nature and frequency of events impacting your community.
The U.S. has sustained 290 weather and natural disasters between 1980 and 2020, and each event reached or surpassed $1 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). During this 40-year period, the country experienced an increased frequency of extreme weather events including: 132 severe storms, 52 tropical cyclones, 33 floods, 28 droughts, 18 wildfires, 18 winter storms and 9 freezes. The total cost of all these events exceeds $1.9 trillion.
The number of major weather or natural disaster events is also increasing in frequency. Before 2014, the U.S. experienced an average of six events annually, but the number has jumped to about 16 per year over the last five years.
As for 2020, there was a record-breaking 22 severe weather and natural disaster events, according to NCEI. These events include 13 severe storms and seven tropical cyclones, as well as droughts and wildfires. They resulted in the deaths of 262 people.
One of the costliest events of 2020 was a derecho that hit the Plains and the Midwest in August. A derecho is a fast-moving, violent windstorm that’s associated with severe thunderstorms. The August 2020 storm went along a 770-mile path, including the Chicago metropolitan area. Tornado warnings were in effect west and north of Chicago.
At one point, winds gusted over 70 mph for about an hour over central and eastern Iowa and northeast Illinois. Various reports said numerous locations reported gusts over 110 mph. Cedar Rapids and nearby areas experienced maximum wind gusts near 140 mph, according to a NOAA report. All told, the derecho was blamed for four deaths and cost approximately $11 billion in damages.
Hurricane Laura, which struck Louisiana in late August, caused about $19 billion in damage and was the costliest event in 2020.
Even though each region of the country experiences a different combination of weather and natural disasters, every state has experienced at least one billion-dollar disaster since 1980. The NCEI reported the Central, South and Southeast regions generally have more billion-dollar disasters than other regions. Texas alone has had more than 100 of these events since 1980.
Certain parts of the country are more prone to different types of weather and natural disasters, such as hurricanes, winter storms and wildfires. Inland floods, not caused by tropical cyclones, typically happen in states near large rivers or the Gulf of Mexico and are fueled by rainstorms. Meanwhile, winter storms typically impact the Northeast and Midwest. Hurricanes and tropical storms may strike from Texas to New England, though can impact many inland states with the after-effects of rain and wind. Severe local storms frequently strike across the Plains, Southeast and Ohio River Valley.
Earthquakes generally take place on the West Coast, but major fault lines also exist in the central and eastern part of the U.S. A 2011 earthquake in Virginia, measuring a magnitude of 5.8, was the largest ever recorded on the eastern seaboard.
Wildfires occur in several Southeastern states, including Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, but they’re most common in the West — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon and California.
Yet the most intense and destructive wildfires happen in California. The state had its worst wildfire season on record in 2020. Over 4 million acres burned, while at least 10,500 structures were destroyed and 33 people died. And five of the top six largest fires in the state happened in 2020 alone.
Timing to notify and protect communities about severe weather and natural disasters is critical. In some cases, hurricanes, blizzards, extreme temperatures and other events can be predicted and emergency personnel can issue alerts and directions to community members as the situation evolves. For example, hurricane warnings are issued 36 hours in advance of the expected onset of tropical storm winds (sustained wind of 39 mph to 73 mph).
But sometimes emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams, first responders and local government officials don’t get enough advance notice when severe weather or a natural disaster will occur.
Some major events, including earthquakes, flash floods, tornadoes and wildfires, have no or very little lead time to warn both community residents and emergency personnel. Flash floods, for example, may happen within a few minutes of intense rains, when a dam or levee fails, or if an ice jam breaks. These floods can bring walls of water from 10’ to 20’ high, and just 2’ of flood water moving at 9’ per second is enough to move 100 lb. rocks.
Tornadoes usually last about 10 minutes, but can last between a few seconds to over an hour. Alerting a community is extremely important beforehand. The NOAA said the current average lead time for a tornado warning is 13 minutes. This means that from the time a warning is issued to the time it’s predicted to hit an area, people have 13 minutes to seek shelter.
Wildfires can start in seconds, traveling up to 6 mph in forests and up to 14 mph in grasslands. They move fast and unpredictably, so residents are encouraged to evacuate before any danger. The Glass Fire, which burned in California’s North Bay area including Napa and Sonoma counties, exploded overnight and flames consumed one acre every five seconds. More than 67,000 acres were burned over four weeks, forcing about 68,000 people to evacuate.
Emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams, first responders and local government officials need to be ready for severe weather or a natural disaster itself and the aftermath. Having the best tools and a strong communication strategy will ensure emergency managers can initiate their plan when an adverse event strikes, while 9-1-1 teams and first responders will have a better understanding of what’s happening. It will also help them respond to these events effectively and efficiently. Meanwhile, local government officials will also be able to inform and comfort residents as they announce details and actions around these events.
Telecommunicators are handling more calls from mobile devices. They receive about 240 million calls every year and, in some areas, about 80% of those calls are made from wireless devices. And they must answer calls within 10 seconds during peak time or otherwise within 20 seconds, according to the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA).
Telecommunicators collect relevant information, such as the type of the incident, an accurate description of people and places, and what’s currently happening. Compared to someone who calls 9-1-1 from a landline, telecommunicators have to ask mobile callers for their location information (street address, intersection, nearby landmarks or area of the building/home). The call’s signal is from the strongest cell tower, not necessarily the closest. This inadvertently places the caller miles away from where they actually are.
Just having the location speeds up response times and saves lives. Numerous studies say the average response time for police to respond to an emergency is about 11 minutes and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel are on the scene in eight minutes, while the first fire department engine responds in about four minutes. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that a one-minute improvement in response time by simply having the specific location of a mobile call would save over 10,000 lives. That response information also includes knowing who lives in a town or city.
One of the most important responsibilities for emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams, first responders and local government officials is providing duty of care to their communities. But they don’t always know where these residents live, or how many individuals who are most at risk and what additional assistance they may need when severe weather or a natural disaster strikes. Having this information will allow emergency management and public safety agencies better prepare these community members for an emergency, while they understand what resources they will need to allocate.
The definition of who’s at risk depends upon certain criteria.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) states an at-risk individual is someone with “access and functional needs (temporary or permanent) that may interfere with their ability to access or receive medical care before, during or after a disaster or public health emergency.” The agency defines at-risk individuals as children, older adults, pregnant women and individuals experiencing homelessness or have chronic health conditions.
Individuals with access and functional needs may include seniors and people with physical, sensory, behavioral, mental health, intellectual, developmental and cognitive disabilities, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They may also have limited English language proficiency, and access to transportation and/or financial resources to prepare for, respond to and recover from an emergency.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines an individual in a vulnerable population as someone who requires constant supervision, has difficulty communicating and accessing medical care, and may need help maintaining independence or accessing transportation.
During natural disasters, people with disabilities and older adults are two to four times more likely to be seriously injured or die. Nearly 1 in 4 Americans have complex access requirements and functional needs and will possibly be impacted during severe weather or a natural disaster.
So how do stakeholders stay engaged with residents about an event, whether it’s urgent or timely? Who will be responsible for reaching out to residents? Where can stakeholders track what actions key personnel are taking?
Here are some other questions departments and agencies need to consider:
Protecting an entire community is a complex and challenging priority for emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams, first responders and local government officials. Having reliable tools and accurate information will help stakeholders implement their preparation and response plans when a severe weather or natural disaster event strikes a community. Administrators will know what tasks will need to be done, who will be responsible for these actions, and when these tasks are completed, so they will have a clear understanding of what’s happening as the response efforts during a hurricane, wildfire or other major event evolve.
After a blizzard, hurricane, flood or other major event strikes a community, there is precious time to initiate and respond. This critical time is maybe only a few minutes, even seconds. What’s accomplished at the start of an emergency will likely determine the complexity of the response, the severity of the severe weather or natural disaster event, and the success of the emergency response efforts.
The term, “golden hour,” is defined when an injured patient has one hour from the time of the traumatic injury to receive critical care to prevent death.
Now this period, or “golden” minutes, is the window of time where getting help is critical to the community and circumstances on the ground become challenging. The clock starts ticking away and key personnel start to mobilize.
But how do key stakeholders know who will be responsible for specific actions, such as reaching out to at-risk residents? Where will they find alert templates? How do they ensure first responders have checklists and other reference materials before they arrive on scene? How do stakeholders know if all the tasks are completed so they can issue an all-clear alert?
A tactical incident collaboration tool will allow key leaders to activate a certain scenario with assigned critical tasks to personnel across departments and agencies. The tool, which works with an integrated mass notification platform, will provide directions for tactical decisions, establish clear responsibilities, and bolster coordination within departments and between agencies. Tasks can also be reordered, as well as created instantaneously as an event evolves. Emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams and first responders, for example, will receive an alert to initiate an assigned task to them when a severe weather event or natural disaster threatens a community.
Here are some examples of tasks that might be initiated when a flash flood occurs:
The tactical incident collaboration tool will also communicate critical information to emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams and first responders in real time. For example, emergency managers can gather responses and real-time locations about at-risk residents from a poll through voice calls, text messages and emails. Once this action is completed, emergency managers can update notes in the assigned task and inform first responders which residents may need additional assistance.
As the actions around a severe weather event or natural disaster change, the tool will send reminders to emergency managers, 9-1-1 telecommunicators and first responders when a task needs to be initiated.
Tasks will also be listed, show who they were assigned to, indicate the status of the tasks, and when they are finished. Administrators will have a detailed timeline, so they can track what actions were implemented and what activities were completed. The tool will also provide an area where administrators can store reference documents, such as a checklist for EMS personnel to refer to when they arrive on scene after a severe weather event.
The tactical incident collaboration tool will also allow emergency managers and others to launch alerts to residents in seconds. In preparation, administrators can create preset templates, including the type of emergency, data, location and what actions residents need to take.
The mass notification platform itself will allow key stakeholders to send alerts in three clicks from a smartphone or a laptop in an office or in the field. The platform automatically connects to devices through Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), such as public address systems and sirens, to share information quickly.
Messages will be sent out simultaneously through text, email, voice calls, IPAWs, digital signature and desktop alerts — all through a single touch point. They can be sent out in the mode and language residents prefer. With multimodal messaging and the ability to create preset templates, there won’t be a delay or gap in notifying residents as soon as possible.
Departments and agencies will also be able to communicate internally, so they’ll have the most current information to respond to these events and strengthen their collaboration and response efforts.
Administrators will be able to send out an unlimited amount of emergency messages to an unlimited amount of recipients, ensuring departments and agencies can scale up when severe weather or a natural disaster impacts a community.
Other tools that would assist emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams, first responders and local government officials include:
Kathleen Ohlson is Rave Mobile Safety’s Content Marketing Manager, writing about federal, K–12 and public safety topics. When she’s not researching or banging away at her keyboard, Kathleen enjoys going to concerts and “playing” general manager for her favorite teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Bruins.
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