With both the hurricane and tornado seasons under way, we know that many emergency responders — firefighters, law enforcement officers, ambulance crews and others — will courageously risk their own lives to protect others from natural disasters. Tragically, some will likely die and others will suffer life-changing injuries.
But while Americans rely on emergency responders to protect them, the responders rely on the rest of us, through the government, for the protection that allows them to do their jobs and survive without serious injury.
Protecting our protectors is more than just the right thing to do; it is critical to maintaining America's capability to respond to future disasters. Unless we protect them, fewer men and women may volunteer for this dangerous but vital work. More will be unable to protect anyone because they will become victims of disasters themselves.
An examination of the Hurricane Katrina response clearly shows that much still needs to be done to better protect emergency personnel. Some of these lessons have been learned before, but we must do a better job translating them into action.
In an assessment released at the end of March, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, identified a range of major problems in the ways the responders to Hurricane Katrina were protected.
Among the concerns raised in the report was a lack of data collection. As a result, we don't know how many emergency workers responded or how many were injured. Information collected from four of the agencies involved — out of many more that were there — showed more than 3,000 responders were hurt. But that is likely only a fraction of the total.
One fact does stand out, however. Eleven people died while trying to help victims of Katrina and clean up the storm's damage. Many of these deaths — from falls, electrocutions and drownings — could have been prevented.
While a great deal was done to help inform responders of the hazards they faced from Katrina and to protect them, the GAO report describes confusion among federal agencies about responsibility for protecting rescue workers and what actions should be taken to do so.
Although the magnitude of the Katrina response was overwhelming even compared with other disaster operations, the problems in protecting the responders were not unique. RAND Corporation research has shown that safety efforts at previous disaster response operations faced similar problems that limited the ability to protect responders from harm.
The response at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 attacks is a prominent example. During that operation, there were significant problems protecting responders. Some rescue workers didn't have access to protective masks or did not wear them because they thought it would interfere with their work. Many of these workers now are developing lung problems and other health effects that mean, in reality, the attacks of Sept. 11 are continuing to claim new victims even today.
We know what needs to be done to better protect responders to disasters. Working with experts in the responder community, RAND developed a set of recommendations to strengthen the management of emergency responder safety for future disasters.
A key action is improving coordination among responding organizations. No one organization has all the skills, training and equipment to handle every kind of disaster. For example, firefighters are expert at handling fires, but may lack the training and gear to deal with other kinds of emergencies. When responding to major disasters, emergency workers must work in concert. Protecting the responders is no different.
To make this happen, there is a clear need to implement management practices, train incident managers and put technologies in place to share information and coordinate safety activities among governments at all levels, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. This would allow every emergency responder at a disaster to benefit from the protective capabilities of all the organizations involved in the response.
Another recommendation is to include all the organizations charged with protecting emergency responders in planning and preparedness exercises so that they can act more effectively when disaster strikes. According to the GAO, key safety agencies have still not become well integrated into planning or preparedness efforts. That was a contributing factor to the problems with safety efforts in the Katrina response.
Important steps have been taken to better protect emergency responders since the Sept. 11 attacks and in the months following Katrina. However, as part of the national effort to improve America's preparedness, it is important to learn from each event to make sure we do better next time.
Brian A. Jackson is the associate director of the Homeland Security Research Program at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute is based in Jackson.
This commentary originally appeared in Clarion-Ledger on August 13, 2007. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.