Community/tactical evacuations, Part 2: Specific operational considerations
Evacuations that are limited to a specific site or a few city blocks are actually fairly common, so it makes sense to have a checklist of what needs to happen when they're necessary.
An incident that requires an evacuation can occur at any time, so the incident commander needs to be able to determine an incident’s size and scope and determine if an evacuation is needed.
When discussing evacuation, it’s helpful to use terms that are appropriate to the type of evacuation needed, such as site, area, large-scale and mass evacuations. This article will cover both site and area evacuations.
In part 1, we discussed the POSTT (priorities, objectives, strategies, tactical directives and tasks) approach and how to establish and implement it. Part 2 looks at some specific operational considerations, including a few that can easily get missed.
Common operational concerns
For any type of evacuation, there are at least four common concerns that will need to be addressed: the evacuation area, the duration, evacuation routes and collection centers. Fortunately, these can be preplanned for various types of evacuations, helping the IC to make timely and effective decisions.
The evacuation area will need to be determined. This may be by the IC or by the Planning Branch for larger incidents. In either case, it’s best to use known geographical boundaries such as streets, rivers or other landmarks, because this lets both citizens and responders quickly determine the area of concern. It will also allow the Public Information Officer and media to provide accurate information to the public. If possible, a map overlay of the evacuation area should be provided so that the message is clear.
Although it may be difficult to estimate the duration for which evacuees will be displaced, an IC should be able to provide a general guideline, because it will be important to those being evacuated. A rough rule of thumb would be up to two hours for a small site evacuation, and up to four hours for an area evacuation. These times are guides only, and evacuees will need to be kept informed on a regular basis by the PIO or a designee. If this information is not provided, the evacuees will be contacting the media for information, and that could be problematic for the IC.
During a site evacuation, ensure that none of the evacuees needs anything in the structure, such as medications. (Photo/Jim Sideras)
The IC will need to determine the routes for the evacuation. If this information is not provided, those leaving the area might cause traffic backups, or worse, they might drive through the area they should avoid. In addition, law enforcement will need to know the route to ensure that traffic control is provided. The IC can delegate the evacuation route determination if there is someone who can handle this.
One last operational concern for any type of evacuation will be the collection center, which is where evacuees will be relocated safely. For both site and area evacuations, the collection center will need to be relatively close and provide some comfort to the evacuees. In some cases, as with site evacuations and depending on the time of day, people may wish to leave the area and go shopping.
For longer-duration incidents like area evacuations, the collection center should provide for bathrooms and facilities where roughly 100 people can remain comfortably. With longer-duration incidents, the Red Cross or other local agency may be able to deliver food and refreshments to the center.
As with evacuations, the IC can delegate the oversight for the collection center but the IC will need to remain in communication with this person.
The most common type of evacuation that an IC will undertake, site evacuations are generally limited to the actual site of an incident and possibly adjacent occupancies. Site evacuations are often the result of a major fire, a localized hazmat spill or a bomb threat, so they occur on a regular basis throughout the emergency services.
Occupants are evacuated from their residence or business and moved to a safe area nearby. Often, this could be nothing more than moving occupants across the street. Since these evacuation times are often limited to few hours, there is not a major concern for feeding or housing evacuees.
The concerns for the IC with a site evacuation are:
- Ensure that evacuees are collected and moved upwind for an evacuation resulting from a fire or hazmat incident.
- Determine if any security is needed. This would be a concern, for example, if occupants left valuable items inside the structure. When buildings are evacuated for a bomb/terrorist threat, people often leave purses, computers or briefcases behind. Since the timeframe is often limited, this is not a major concern.
- Ensure that none of the evacuees needs anything in the structure, such as medications. Since they may not be allowed back inside, the concern would be with anyone who may need medications such as insulin, or baby formula.
- Ensure that the number of occupants and where they are relocated to is conveyed to the IC.
Notification that it’s safe to return to the occupancy is often forgotten. For site evacuations, since these are often short duration and occupants are very near the scene, the IC can designate someone, such as a law enforcement officer or firefighter, to simply tell the occupants.
If the evacuees cannot be returned, becase of either damage or ongoing danger, the IC can assign the task of finding alternative shelter to organizations such as the Red Cross.
Area evacuations are larger in scale and may involve several or more city blocks. These types of evacuations involve more people, and a rule of thumb is to expect about 100. With area evacuations, there is also an increase in complexity, in part because of the need to maintain control of the relocation site. Since these incidents are larger and more complex, evacuees may be away from their home or work for a few hours.
In addition, an area evacuation will affect people who might initially be unaware of a problem. Since these people can be blocks away from the incident, they likely may be at a work location in the evacuation zone. Even the evacuation of several city blocks, however, should not take a great deal of time. It’s relatively easy to divide the evacuation area into four parts and assign personnel to either go door to door or make announcements while driving through the area.
(AP Photo/Screenshot, Peter Zschunke)
It’s important that the people assigned to this task know several things. Depending on the time frame, this may not be possible, but generally they should know the following:
- Why is there an evacuation.
- What should people do before leaving or any special instructions (e.g., take any valuables and medications, shut off stoves, shut windows, remove flammable material from window area, etc.).
- Where should they go (collection locations).
- How should they get there and what route to take.
- How long to expect to be gone.
- How will they be notified to return.
- How to let responders know they have left (e.g., tie a white cloth on the front door).
As the incident begins to increase in both scope and complexity, the IC will likely be moving to a Unified Command structure. Since the IC will need to coordinate several key things that involve other organizations, the Unified Command structure allows for decisions to be made in a more collaborative manner and better use the system resources.
Some of these decisions will be:
- The collection locations and shelters. These sites will need to be opened and be expecting evacuees to be arriving. Ideally, they will have large enough areas for the evacuees and bathroom facilities for approximately 100 people. Schools and community centers are ideal locations, and many can easily be converted to handle longer timeframes if needed. Having communication with the leadership of the school system will greatly aid in this process.
- Perimeter security will also need to be coordinated. As the area becomes more defined, law enforcement will need to set up security and also ensure that people do not return to the area. This will require more law enforcement resources, and this process will need to be coordinated with senior law enforcement officials.
- Having a Public Information Officer is crucial, so this position should be quickly established for any major incident. This will serve several purposes, including providing relevant information to the media, maintaining confidence in the system, providing a legitimate and accurate source for information, and giving the media a person to follow up with.
Site and area evacuations are a common occurrence. However, time spent preplanning for these types of evacuation will ensure that anyone in the IC role will be effective and lead the incident in a proactive manner.Community/tactical evacuations, part 1