The response to the tragic Oso Mudslide continues, and rescue efforts are transitioning to recovery. Continued heavy rains are only making the situation worse for the search and recovery teams post holing in the dangerous muck. It has now clear most of the buried victims will never be recovered. As search efforts continue, stones are already being thrown at those in charge of the response effort, alleging delays in calling for assistance from the National Guard and FEMA, and blocking efforts of well-meaning volunteers, including family members of the missing, who wanted to help search for victims. A Seattle Times reporter wrote a piece about this discontentment, and then reached out to me afterwards via Twitter to get my perspective. At first I wasn’t going to touch this with a ten foot pole. But, in re-reading the story, I realized that it could be an opportunity to educate the reporter and others on how incident commanders and responders work in disaster situations, and the unique challenges they face. My brief email response;
Hey Brian, I read the story. I’ll share my thoughts and observations in bullet point format. Keep in mind, I don’t have much inside knowledge on the response. Some of my past colleagues are actively engaged, so I have not been bothering them. But, I do know how the Incident Management System (IMS) is supposed to work on incidents like this. Only a thorough after action review conducted by an outside party will provide a credible and accurate report of what transpired in the initial emergency response phase of the disaster.
- Given the geographical size of the slide it doesn’t surprise me in the least that it took some time for the magnitude of the disaster to be determined, in a process we call “size up”. I guessing that the full scope and impact wasn’t comprehensible until the first aerial shots were received.
- Managing spontaneous volunteers during a high visibility, high risk disaster is every incident commander’s nightmare. By way of example; during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, a citizen (nurse) was working on the pile during the first hours of the incident and was hit in the head by a piece of falling concrete and later died from a head injury. She wasn’t wearing any appropriate protective gear, nor was she trained in emergency response and/or safety procedures. During the initial hour or so in the incident, dozens of spontaneous volunteers were crawling around the ruins looking for survivors. There was no structure, no accountability, no supervision, etc… When everyone evacuated the area when it was believed that a secondary device was thought to be in the building the incident commander immediately cordoned off the area, and was able to gain control of the scene, and only allowed trained responders back into the scene. This has to be one of the toughest decisions an IC has to make, as he/she knows it will challenged by those who are driven to help by altruism or need to help significant others. I understand through media reports that at least one volunteer worker has had to be airlifted to the hospital. I wonder how many others – sanctioned and unsanctioned – have received other injuries working on the debris pile. I’m not going to second guess the IC on this.
- The incident was hopefully managed through full implementation of the Incident Management System. This is the nationally adopted (and also federally required) organizational structure and procedures for emergency events. There are lots of references online that describe the system, and the federal requirements for training and use of the system in emergencies and disasters. Given my limited outside view, I’m curious as to how fully they implemented and followed ICS procedures, including the implementation of Unified Command. I admit I have not followed all of the media briefings, but in the limited ones I saw, the structure was not readily identified. In other words, key individuals were identified – and represented – their agencies (Snohomish County Emergency Management, Fire District Chief, Sheriff, etc.. , not necessarily their role within the IMS (Incident commander, Operations Section Chief, Public Information Officer, Logistics Section Chief, Safety Officer, etc..).
- Your question about “National Guard/FEMA” is really two separate issues. Mobilizing either one of these agencies takes time. I don’t consider them to be “First Responders” in the true sense of the term as it relates to unanticipated large scale disasters. I viewed the National Guard as a “second wave” response resource, with the exception of the Civil Support Team from Joint Base Fort Lewis/McCord, who provides very specialized first response hazardous materials/terrorism assets on request. However, it still takes hours to get them up here. FEMA mobilization is an entirely different animal, and I never thought of them as first responders, rather a disaster support agency – providing logistical, financial and recovery assets and resources.
- Lastly, I was an Incident Commander at the Whatcom Creek explosion, and saw first hand the political maneuvering that goes on behind the scenes, and in front of the camera. We’ve all seen it at other disasters as well; Hurricane’s Katrina and Sandy come immediately to mind. It is the nature of the beast, and I always preached that IC’s play a pivotal role in balancing all of the various interests and agendas of key government officials and agencies while trying to safely and efficiently meet the incident objectives. It does not surprise me that there are those who are publicly challenging the initial decisions. I am a little surprised that it happened so quickly (outside of the typical debate about spontaneous volunteers).
I hope this information provides some context. Regards, Bill Boyd
The reporter’s response? “OK, Thanks” Was he simply fishing for validation of the Snohomish County elected officials concerns? Perhaps. Personally, I think we should bury the dead first and grieve before we start blasting those who did everything in their power to save them. An objective review and improvements will come soon enough. Now is not the time for elected officials directly responsible for the response to be throwing stones. The buck ultimately stops with them, and they should keep their mouths shut for now.