How is the EMS Field Changing in Response to Natural Disasters?
Floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and disease outbreaks appear to be increasing in number and intensity. First responders are more important than ever. Emergency medical service personnel, in particular, need to give it their all. When a natural disaster strikes, EMS needs to be more flexible, resourceful and responsive than ever. Our field is changing as we strive to better prepare for preventative and responsive measures for natural disasters.
The NAEMT 2017 Preparedness Report explains that “readiness to respond to major incidents doesn’t just happen – it requires planning, coordination, education and training for all responders and support personnel. It also requires the proper resources, including staff, equipment, and supplies for the task at hand.” Though most EMS practitioners have experience in natural disaster emergency response, they don’t have the skills in preparation, according to a 2016 NAEMT survey. Unfortunately, 75% of EMS practitioners cite lack of funding as a reason for lack of preparedness.
So what can we do, as an industry and community, to prepare?
Working Together Across Disciplines
Emergency managers, at the state or federal level, coordinate the efforts of police, fire, and emergency medical professionals. Communities create their own emergency response plans. They designate the roles of each emergency response unit. However, according to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, “EMS is often written into these plans with no input from the EMS agencies themselves, resulting in unrealized expectations.” If you have access to your community’s plan, familiarize yourself with it. Or speak with someone in authority within your organization to make sure everyone knows what it says.
Mutual Aid Agreements (MAA) are more important than ever. All hands are on deck when it comes to large-scale natural disasters, and communities with thinly-stretched personnel and budgets must look to their neighbors. Eight-five percent of EMS managers report the ability to assist neighboring jurisdictions within 24 hours, as found by the 2016 NAEMT survey. MAA coordinating and communicating needs to be a common occurrence.
Some disaster-prone communities are working to improve alert systems. Following the 2017 fires in Sonoma County and Mendocino County, California, the state legislature is reevaluating how residents are notified during a disaster. When members of the public are more informed and, if necessary, prepared to evacuate, you can do your job more efficiently.
“Even with our increased awareness of the greater frequency and magnitude of such events, the majority of communities large and small are not prepared for major disasters,” reports the APA’s Washington Chapter in their 2015 discussion about community resilience. One of the biggest keys to prevention is community engagement and education. Around 90% of wildfires are caused by human actions, which can be prevented. EMS play a large role in engagement as response experts, coordinating with local government, schools and businesses.
Another tactic has been to better educate the public about emergency first aid. At times, a layperson can administer critical first aid before you arrive. The federal Until Help Arrives program provides training for these situations. As a medical professional, you can encourage your friends and family to learn things like this. Also, make sure they know how and when to call 911.
Ongoing training is, of course, an important part of working in EMS. If you wish to especially prepare yourself for potential natural disasters, seek out training opportunities in your area or online. The American College of Emergency Physicians lists some resources here, including “Lessons Learned from Hurricane Sandy.”
The Ohio Fire Academy offers a 40-hour Wildfire Interagency (or “Red Card”) course and a six-hour refresher course for firefighters planning to be members of the Ohio Wildland Firefighter Crew. For more, see the Ohio Fire Marshal’s 2018 course catalog. You, too, can prepare for wildfires as they begin to cause more problem in the midwest.
We need to ensure that our EMS teams are adequately prepared for natural disasters. That includes community engagement and personal household preparedness plans. In this way, there are no gaps in the quality of EMS preparedness and response. Preparedness allows for adaptability in the field under extreme duress and a quicker response time.