I was recently asked to speak to city staff in my neighboring community of Ft. Collins, Colorado, on the lessons learned from my experience during the Oklahoma City bombing response in 1995. I thought about what message I’d try to convey in my pending presentation. I began to think about which things have really stuck with me from what we went through during those 17 spring days more than 15 years ago.
My first thought was: How would I be able to accurately articulate the horror of the event on April 19, 1995, something that was so far off the chart from what we had ever imagined? Then I realized that this in itself was a key lesson. The city of Oklahoma City was extremely effective in using the knowledge and information we had already gained in dealing with what we knew might happen.
We had a plan, we had processes, and we had protocols. Our challenge was to apply these elements to something we didn’t expect to happen.
Planning for the expected is what we do every day. Being ready to deal with the unexpected is what emergency preparedness is all about. A mass casualty incident like the bombing brings with it challenges that simply aren’t a part of our normal emergency planning processes. They are incidents we don’t like to think about, but they are very real threats.
I think the first hard lesson for all of us in OKC was the realization that it can happen here! And for us, it meant ramping up our response to catch up with the incident. While our staff members set new paradigms in emergency response, there were things that went wrong. There always are. I believe the key for us was that we never gave up. There was always one more thing we could try, and try we did. We didn’t let what we didn’t know degrade our response, and we learned what we needed as we went.
Learning while you respond often doesn’t turn out well. To have success doing this requires a strong underlying foundation of planning, processes, and preparation. Without this, your response will likely turn out badly. Although we did a great job of emergency planning in Oklahoma City, the scenario of someone setting off a bomb in our downtown wasn’t really in the scope of our planning.
Just nine months earlier, we had attended a week-long “all-hazards” course at FEMA’s National Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland. That course is now broken into two programs: preparation and response, and recovery and mitigation. What we learned at EMI paid huge dividends in the days following the bombing.
One of the most important takeaways was the relationships we built with each other. That experience reinforced with me the importance of planning, training, and, most important, capacity building with the people you will rely on to deliver your emergency response. I highly recommend this institute experience for managers.
Being a part of the response to what was at that time the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States was a life-changing event for many of us. During the actual response, however, we were really too busy to think about what was happening, and we certainly weren’t thinking about any lessons learned. It was only afterward that the importance of what, how, when, and who became apparent. It’s my hope that this article can offer you some ideas and approaches to making sure your community is prepared if the worst happens.
First, let me say that I believe that planning is the key to success in everything we do. But it is absolutely critical in disaster preparedness. Planning allows you to anticipate, rather than react. It will help you identify what might happen, how you’ll need to respond to it, and whom you will call on to make that response.
Planning for disasters allows you to build in funding to sustain emergency plans into the future. It improves organizational knowledge and capacity and encourages creative thinking and problem solving. Planning minimizes surprises in an emergency response and reduces your dependence on luck to succeed.
Think about this. How much effort would you put into your disaster plan if you knew lives would depend on it? Believe me, they will. The emergency planning process creates a culture of preparedness in your organization. There simply is no good excuse for not planning.
We found in OKC that decisions we made in the first few minutes and hours of the incident proved to have the greatest impact on the outcomes. This will, however, also be the most difficult time to make good decisions as the surroundings will be chaotic, information will be limited, and many resources may not yet be in place. This is where a plan with predetermined critical decisions and actions will be most useful.
Help will come, but it’s at the very beginning when you’ll have the chance to make the most positive difference, and as first responders you’ll be on your own. In major incidents, there is never a second chance to get it right. I encourage local governments to plan for the first eight hours of a disaster. That’s the timeframe in which you can make the most positive difference.
One of the things that has stuck with me over the years was how important communication was for us in OKC—not just the technical aspect (the phones, pagers, and radios), but the interpersonal kind. In a crisis, it’s often not so much what we know, but how well we know each other that determines how successful we will be.
I believe that communication can be the fatal flaw in nearly all we do. It is even more important in a crisis. Practice communication, anticipate existing communication methods to fail, and have a backup. Plan as a team; train together. Extend your training to include cross-departmental groups and the people who will be helping you in mutual aid.
The more you learn about each other, the more effective your emergency operations plans will become—in both what you do every day and most certainly in an emergency response.
The next most important element is having a process to manage the incident. We are now required by federal law to use the Incident Command System (ICS) in our emergency and disaster plans and our response. ICS should be the organizational foundation component of your planning. One of my heroes is the former fire chief of OKC, Gary Marrs. As incident commander (IC), Chief Marrs was responsible for oversight of the entire response. What an overwhelming challenge!
But Chief Marrs, working cooperatively with Police Chief Sam Gonzales and others, used ICS to delegate operations, administrative support, logistics, planning, and other specific actions so he could maintain his focus on the big picture. He was the consummate leader throughout the event.
He held us together. Having one person in charge is critical to maintaining operational control of a large incident. Your plan should be geared to support the IC in accomplishing this. In OKC, ICS was a key tool in allowing Chief Marrs to do a great job as our IC.
ICS doesn’t dictate tactics; it brings coordination, communication, and cooperation to the folks who will be managing a response. ICS is flexible and scalable and is absolutely the best system I’ve ever used to manage and direct responses to an incident or special event. I’d use it even if it wasn’t the law. ICS helps create successful responses. It is a key management tool.
During the first few days of the response everyone wanted to help at the building. That was, however, the job of our search and rescue teams. It took several people in support to keep one searcher in the building and active around the clock. This impressed on me the importance of “doing your job” and sticking to the script. It’s critical, and it can save lives.
The emergency operations plan (EOP) is an interesting document. It can contain the seeds for either your future success or your failure. Keeping your plan small and focused is important. You want to be able to initialize your response and management elements quickly, activate critical actions on the ground (including search and rescue, emergency medical, security, and evacuation), marshal resources, and make sure individual people are responsible for specific critical tasks.
You’ll need to assure that you can continue to maintain normal critical services apart from the incident response. And you’ll want to be able to track and assign resources and mutual aid.
Wherever you can, reduce critical tasks to checklists. Keep your EOP as small as possible because on the day of the disaster you won’t have time to read a large book. The amount of effort you put into developing and maintaining the EOP correlates directly with how well it will work when you need it.
In summary, managers need to remember that in a major incident flexibility equals success. We can’t allow ourselves to lock into only one approach. The incident will change, and we must be able to change with it. Our plan should support initiative, clear away the barriers to operations, and set the protocols for making decisions.
I believe these are the critical keys to success:
There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about my experience in OKC. I remember the terror, the pain, the frustration, and the grinding days when Oklahoma City staff members were doing our jobs. But most of all, I remember the people.
I remember the employees of OKC who successfully met and solved an unbelievable challenge, the heroes—both known and unknown—throughout the 17 days, and the residents who came together in a way I’d never witnessed before to make sure that this disaster didn’t destroy our community but made it stronger than before.
Emergency preparedness is job number one for the public administrator. Don’t fall into the trap of putting it on the back burner or thinking it will never happen in your community. It can, and it will. Managers must be prepared to respond to it.