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This article is not about individual or family disaster recovery. If you are looking for what to have
on hand before an emergency, this is not the place to find that information.
There are several good places to find what you should already have to meet most emergencies. This
type of information and the supplies you should have are available both from non-profit and for-
profit organizations. Start with your local Red Cross and go from there. Your local government is
also a good place to start if only to find out what they are prepared for, if anything. (Your local Fire
Department is or should be prepared!)
This article is about mounting a disaster recovery effort on a large scale. This is about what
personnel, equipment and supplies will needed at emergency sites such as those that result from
earthquakes, floods, tsunamis (tidal waves), fires, volcanoes, and a lot more.
Most of these disaster areas will be caused by natural events. That does not mean that a man-made
disaster will not create an area needing personnel, equipment and supplies for recovery. Disaster
areas have been caused by explosions, dam breaks, fires and more.
A disaster is a disaster regardless of its cause. There are several variables involved in disaster
recovery such as the cause of the disaster, location, weather, accessibility, and more. The disaster
recovery efforts vary because of these factors but the same personnel, equipment and supplies will
be needed at both natural and man made disaster sites.
Personnel, equipment and supplies will be needed in more or less amounts depending on the
variables given and additional factors. Some of these factors you will know about before getting to
the disaster area, some you will find out about when you get there and some you may never know.
The Boy Scouts have a great motto: Be Prepared. In Disaster Recovery: Be Prepared for Anything!
I am a retired U. S. Navy Seabee and for three years was an Instructor at the Disaster Recovery
Training (DRT) School at the U. S. Naval Construction Battalion Center (now Navy Base Ventura)
in Port Hueneme, California.
When I was there, our main emphasis was to instruct our fellow Seabees and others about NBC
warfare and how to deal with each. NBC = Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare. All of these
are man-made and there was one week’s instruction for each of those three.
Part of the fourth week’s instruction was in Natural Disasters but most of that week was spent in
recovery methods. We didn’t spend a lot of time on natural disasters because we were more
concerned with restoring a military base to operational readiness after an NBC attack.
Seabees are ‘hands on’ people and sitting in a class room for three weeks is not an
enjoyable experience for most. The fourth week was popular because it was mostly
spent outside, repelling off a five story tower; lowering stretchers down a line (‘rope’
to civilians) from the tower (always fun getting a volunteer to be the victim in
the stretcher); building ‘A’ frames and other rescue equipment on site; rescuing the wounded and
other victims (more volunteers) and lots of other ‘hands on’ activities.
While assigned to DRT, I attended several schools and did a lot of training with the other military
services. For a while, as a result of attending one of these schools, I was assigned to an ‘on call’
Nuclear Response Team. Fortunately, nobody dropped any nuclear weapons, accidentally or
otherwise, during that time and I was never called out.
I also received the Naval Enlisted Code for a Disaster Recovery Specialist which designation I
carried until I retired. What makes me an ‘expert’ in Disaster Recovery? Other than the above,
there isn’t much. I have survived and recovered from a major earthquake (one of the benefits of
living in Southern California). Fortunately, my damage was minimal.
Over the course of my military career, a good part of which was involved in disaster recovery, I
have learned that there are three essentials for each and every recovery: personnel, equipment and
supplies. Also, I learned that these personnel, with their equipment and supplies must arrive at the
disaster scene in a specific order. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Personnel – Equipment – Supplies
(When referring to people, I will quite often refer to them as ‘men’ or ‘he’ or some other
male gender term. Please do not take offence or draw any assumptions from this usage.
Writing ‘he or she’ instead of just ‘he’ is, to my mind, clumsy and makes for awkward
reading. In Disaster Recovery, sex, with few exceptions, is unimportant. Getting the job
done is important and it doesn’t make any difference which, male or female, does it.)
People at the disaster scene should be divided into two main groups. There are the people who
were there before the disaster (victims) and the people who were sent to aid the recovery
(rescuers). This article is mainly about rescuers. Who is needed and when are they needed. During
this article, I will quite often refer to victims as survivors, refugees or some other such term.
Personnel, equipment and supplies are brought to the disaster scene from some other place,
probably from several places. There will be very few of these present at the disaster scene and
cannot be counted on to be of much use in the rescue. If they are there, by all means put them to
use but don’t count on their being anything available. Assume that everything needed for recovery
will have to be brought to the area from somewhere outside the disaster area.
Personnel, for the most part, are skilled in specific areas and are sent to the disaster area to do
their specialty. If there is no immediate requirement for that person to act in their specialty, have
them go somewhere away from the scene and rest. They will be needed and will need to be ready
to continue working in their specialty.
One of the big problems at all disaster recovery scenes is the misuse of personnel. There is no
such thing as ‘make work’ or ‘busy work’ at a disaster scene for those personnel brought in from
(Sometimes victims can be put to work with two benefits: it gives them something
to do and it aids the recovery. Nothing too complicated but something simple like
shoveling rubble into a wheelbarrow, unless they have specific skills.)
Each and every rescuer brought to the scene is there to perform a specific task. If the person is
not doing their specific task or providing valuable assistance to another rescuer performing their
specific task, that rescuer should clear the area and rest. Sooner or later, probably sooner, their
skill will be needed. Rescuers need all the rest they can get.
Each and every person involved in disaster recovery (rescuer) is skilled in specific tasks. They
are sent to the disaster site to perform those specific tasks.
Misuse of rescuers is, as I said above, a very big problem. Unless applying their skill or aiding
another rescuer, that skilled person is not doing what they are there to do. Diverting them into
doing something they are not particularly skilled in doing is a huge but common mistake! Not
only is this a waste of manpower but accomplishes very little. Have the person with the skills
accomplish the task!
Each rescuer needs specialized equipment. Equipment needed to perform their specific task. This
equipment must be brought with them. Doctors cannot count on finding scalpels at the disaster
site—they must bring their own scalpels and everything else. Welders need acetylene torches
and arc welders —don’t count on finding any at the site!
This is about the supplies needed by each rescuer and their equipment not the supplies needed to
restore the area and for the refugees with two exceptions noted below. Each rescuer needs
supplies both for themselves and for their equipment.
Doctors and Nurses need bandages and other medical supplies—they never have enough! Truck
drivers need gasoline—don’t count on local supplies! An acetylene torch without an acetylene
tank is useless to a welder. Bring supplies with you! Bring all the supplies you will need and then
Water! Besides the equipment and supplies needed to do their job, there is one item
each and every rescuer must carry. Drinking water, potable water, is vital at disaster
sites. Rescuers need to stay hydrated. Survivors will need a clean, reliable source of
drinking water. The local supplies will be contaminated—count on it! Every time a
rescuer sees a survivor, give them a bottle of water. After an airplane is loaded, fill in
the empty spaces with bottled water.
Teddy Bears! There are going to be child victims who are confused, in shock,
some with physical injuries and who just do not understand the situation. It is
amazing how a child will calm down when presented with a Teddy Bear or some
such item. Something they can hang onto and have all to their own. Whatever you
do, don’t try to take that item away from a child. Once given, it is theirs forever.
Bring lots of Teddy Bears.
Here are a few skills well outside my area of expertise. Personnel with these skills need to be
available and all are certainly important rescuers. I cannot say much about them because I,
personally, don’t know that much about what they do, what they do it with, nor how they do it.
I don’t know so I won’t assume anything. I do know that they and their skills are needed and
are vital to a successful rescue operation.
There are certain ‘niceties’ (for lack of a better word) about responding to a disaster, especially
in a foreign country. The way it usually works, or should work, is that somewhere, there is a
disaster which overwhelms the local capacities to handle the situation. The President of the
United States contacts the leader of the foreign country or the Governor of the affected State or
Territory and offers assistance.
(For an excellent article about how this works or doesn’t work, read the article, “Our
Responder in Chief” by Patrick S. Roberts. This article starts on page 76 in National Affairs,
Number 5, Fall 2010. Their web site is <www.nationalaffairs.com>.)
Nothing “officially” happens until the President’s offer to assist is accepted! I should modify
that last statement. Gathering of personnel, equipment and supplies should begin immediately
upon knowing about a disaster. Also, the advance planning of transportation to the disaster area
should begin. Rescuers may not be needed or never requested. The closer they are to being
ready to depart for the disaster area, the sooner the rescue can begin after the request is
Important! All rescuers are guests in that country. It is the victim’s country and their home. All
rescuers should (must) act accordingly. The victims need help not a take over by rescuers. It is
not a war even if military personnel are among the rescuers.
Liaison people are diplomats! Hopefully, they speak the survivor’s native language or at least
have an interpreter with them. It is vital that as many rescuers as possible speak the survivors
Security is also a skill outside my area. However, I can tell you that there will be a need for two
different, perhaps overlapping requirements for security.
Of primary importance will be the preventing of looting and other such acts. Most of this will be
handled, hopefully, by the local law enforcement people assuming they are capable of
performing their duties. Security people may be brought in to assist the locals but only as
‘backup’ and not the primary security force.
There will be a need for a secure area, away from the immediate disaster area, for the rescuers.
This area needs to be setup to provide a place apart from the chaos of the disaster area. It is
vital that rescuers have a place that is secure. The personnel providing that security should be
security rescuers and come with the rest of the personnel, equipment and supplies.
Perhaps I should also include a short note about weapons. For the most part, no weapons
should be brought to the disaster scene without local approval. Responding to a disaster in your
own country is one thing but responding to a disaster in a foreign country is an entirely different
thing. All victims are on the edge of panic and the sight of an armed, uniformed, foreign soldier
may be the trigger that sets off a panic. That is the absolute last thing needed at a disaster site.
Logistics is another skill outside my area. I am not going to say much about logistics except
there better be some people who are experts in this field. The larger the disaster area the more
personnel, equipment and supplies will be needed. Someone has to figure out how to get these
rescuers from where they are now to where they are needed.
Fortunately we can take advantage of technology. Today’s satellites can look down on a
disaster area and people looking at the images can do several things. They can estimate the
extent of the damage. It will be only an estimate but that will give an idea as to how much help
They can also assess the damage, if any, to the nearby airports. The fastest way to get rescuers
from where they are to where they are needed is by airplane. If the local airport is damaged,
where is the next available airport? What is the largest size aircraft these places can handle?
Logistics people will also be the ones to handle the airplanes and cargo at the airport nearest the
disaster area. Here they will be working with local people if they are able to function. Some will
but some won’t.
A different but related problem for the logistics people will be to
locate three areas: the Refugee Camp with the Main Hospital and a
Morgue; the Rescuer’s Camp and the Rubble Area.
There will be a need for a Refugee Camp. This location should be outside the immediate
disaster area but not so far that transportation becomes a problem. The security for this area
should be by local law enforcement personnel if possible. They may need help and may be
augmented with security rescuers.
Adjacent to the refugee area, but separate from it, should be the Main Hospital. Again,
transportation is a very strong consideration in the selection of this site. This is also a good
place for the Morgue to be located. There will be plenty of time to bury the dead later but the
immediate problem is to cool their bodies to halt decomposition. The equipment to do this must
be brought in from outside along with everything else.
A second site, the Rescuers Camp, needs to be set up for the rescue personnel. This must be
separate from the Refugee Camp. It will be necessary for all the rescue personnel to know that
they will safe and secure in this area so the security rescuers will be needed.
All the refuse and rubble needs to be removed from the disaster area and taken to the Rubble
Area and dumped. If you move a pile of rubble from one place inside the disaster area to
another place inside the disaster area, you still have a pile of rubble to deal with. Once rubble
has been cleared by rescue personnel, remove it from the immediate disaster scene. This
requires a third site outside the disaster site and if possible one which uses a different road for
access than for the other two sites. There will be plenty of traffic in and out of the disaster area
and it is best to spread it around.
Five essential rescue groups
Every disaster is unique! There are thousands of variables and it is impossible to come up with
a ‘one size fits all’ because it doesn’t. There never has been and there never will be a perfect
rescue. The more you get into planning for a disaster the more you realize that ‘one size’
definitely does not fit all! But there are some commonalities between them all.
First, even before an ‘official’ request for assistance, the logistics people go to work. Where are
the personnel, equipment and supplies? How are they going to get to the disaster area? Most
important, how do they get there in the sequence they are most needed?
For purposes of this discussion, I am going to assume that that there will be just five aircraft
going to the disaster area. There will probably be many, many more but I am going to put
particular personnel, equipment and supplies on just five aircraft and assign the sequence in
which they need to arrive.
First Airplane – Access
If you cannot get to the disaster area, then all the personnel, their equipment and supplies
sitting at an airport are useless! The first aircraft to arrive should be loaded with access
material. Bulldozers and graders might (will) be needed to clear the roads.
Trucks and buses will be needed to transport personnel, equipment and
supplies to and from the disaster area. Ambulances will be needed to
transport the seriously wounded
Lots and lots of shovels and wheelbarrows will be needed for rubble removal both to gain
access and during the recovery.
Airport personnel, equipment and supplies will also be on this airplane. The airport is definitely
part of the access to the disaster scene. If the local people are able to operate the airport, by
all means let them. But be ready and able to give them all the assistance they need.
Second and Third Airplanes – Half Rescue / Half Medical
Immediately behind the Access personnel will be the Rescue and Medical personnel. I have
split these two groups of personnel, equipment and supplies and combined them into two
aircraft because they are both needed and must work together. Although two distinct
operations, the one needs the other in order to do what is needed.
There will be injured people everywhere. Medical people will have no
problem finding enough to do. They will probably do triage and set up
mobile field hospitals (third airplane’s cargo). I leave that to them. My only
suggestion is to set the main hospital well outside the immediate disaster
Teams! Rescue teams work as a unit consisting of two to a dozen people. Never, ever does
a rescuer work alone! Each Team Leader needs to know where his people are at all times.
I hesitate to refer to a well trained dog as ‘equipment’ but in this case a
rescue dog is a ‘tool’ (equipment) used by a rescuer. K-9s have proven their
worth over and over again and continue to do so. Think of the dog and his
handler as one rescuer and let them do their job. (And please, don’t forget to
bring dog food! That’s part of the rescuer’s supplies.)
Fourth Airplane – Sanitation
Field sanitation is a well established necessity. When someone has to go, they will go
wherever they can. If, and I emphasize the ‘if’, there is a bathroom with a toilet handy and
accessible and working, they will use it. Otherwise they will do what has to be done
wherever it can be done.
About half of the causalities which occurred during the American Civil War were due to
disease and not to combat! A great many of these could have been prevented by use of
proper field sanitation. It is a lesson that has been learned and must be applied in all disaster
Therefore, the fourth airplane should be loaded with, for lack of a better term, ‘port-a-
potties’ and the personnel that know how to set them up and keep them functional. These
can be constructed or assembled on site in order to save space in the aircraft but the rescue
sanitation personnel must know how to put them in working order and keep them working.
Vital pieces of equipment!
Don’t expect to retrieve and return these port-a-potties. Leave them
there; it will be some time before the local sanitation facilities can be
restored. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid can be avoided or at least
minimized with proper field sanitation to say nothing of dysentery. This
is another very good reason for bringing lots of bottled water with you.
Fifth Airplane - Support
There are a lot of personnel, equipment and supplies that will sooner or later be needed at
the disaster site. They are (possibly) not needed right away but will be sometime. Some of
these specialists will be on earlier airplanes as part of other teams because of their unique
Electricians will be needed. A live wire dangling from a pole is a hazard to everyone. The
main supply of power will probably go off when the event first happens but will, sometime,
be restored. Rescuers: Never, ever assume a wire is dead or you might be.
Some electricians will need to bring portable lighting plants. Nigh time operations cannot be
done in the dark. There are thousands of these ‘light plants’ around on almost every
construction site. Trailer mounted gasoline engines turning a generator with poles to extend
the lights twenty to forty feet off the ground. Besides being used for lighting they also
provide a power source for needed electrical tools.
Cooks will be needed along with portable stoves. Propane ‘camp’ stoves can be used to
make a lot of soup and a lot of soup will be needed. What a Teddy Bear is to a small child,
a bowl of hot soup is to a victim. Nothing tells a victim that somebody cares more than a
bowl of hot soup.
Field kitchens can be flown in with plenty of food for both rescuers and victims. Water,
clean water, is essential but food is needed to keep the rescue operation going. There is
nothing better for rescuer moral than a hot meal at the end of a shift.
I spoke earlier of three areas to be set aside. One for the Rescuer’s Camp and another for
the Refugee Camp with the Main Hospital and a Morgue. These are distinct areas and must
be kept separate from each other.
There must be someone (preferable a rescuer) at all times at the entrance to the Rescuer’s
Camp to keep track of who is inside and where. They will do the initial assigning of a place
to sleep to each rescuer as they arrive at the camp. If a particular person is needed in a
hurry, knowing exactly where this person is sleeping will save a lot of valuable time.
Someone (preferable a victim) needs to be at the entrance of the Refugee Camp at all times.
This is the person who will keep track of who is in the camp so that relatives and friends
may be reunited. Hopefully, there will be a lot of tents set up and each family can be
assigned to one tent. And don’t forget to place lots of ‘port-a-potties’ around the camp.
There is one ‘hazard’ which needs mentioning. Visitors! These may be politicians (count on
it) or news people (the good media people know how to get their story but stay out of the
way). Some of these people are here to be seen and not to see. It may be important to the
survivors that they do see their government and political people as reassurance that someone
cares about them. It is very easy for the visitors to assume an importance greater than the
rescue. Don’t let them take over! If nothing else, hand them a shovel.
Finally, don’t forget to bring and place lots of ‘port-a-potties’ around
the camps and the disaster site.
And bring plenty of water! There is no such thing as too much
Don’t forget the Teddy Bears!
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