Rural Crisis Response: How to Lend a Hand in a Way that Helps

Natural disasters can stretch rural emergency services to the limit. But you can count on help from your neighbors.

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Just after 9 a.m. on Sunday, March 10, the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to respond to the nearby White Lake fire station. Heavy snow had collapsed the roof onto the department’s engine, tender and attack truck. And all their officers were across the state at a fire conference. So our department rushed to the scene, sized up the situation, and started working to outline a crisis response plan.

This was not our first natural disaster. In 2007, an EF3 tornado tore a path through our service area. You can still see that path on satellite photos. The first communication we received was that “high winds” had hit the resort just over a mile from my house and there were “some broken windows.” When we arrived on the scene, though, the building was gone, the road was blocked, and trees and debris were windrowed along the highway so deep we couldn’t tell if there might be vehicles buried there.

We learned a lot from our response to the tornado that served us well at the station collapse. Here are a few of those lessons.

Volunteers salvaged equipment from the collapsed fire station, passing it hand to hand along a human chain to pickup trucks to move to another location. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

People Want to Help

After the tornado, people from all over the area headed straight to the damaged resort to help. And we needed the help. But keeping track of people and deploying them is not as easy as it sounds. We were conducting hasty searches in multiple locations. On the far side of the blocked road, they didn’t have nearly enough manpower. On our side, we had lots of volunteers but very few people to prioritize needs and manage the efforts. Some volunteers showed up with chainsaws and hard hats, but others were not dressed for conditions or were physically unable to clamber through debris on a hot summer day. And I know many of them were frustrated at standing around waiting for assignments.

At that time, I wasn’t on the fire department but had been on the search and rescue team for 17 years, so I had some experience with incident command protocols. My job initially was checking people into the scene and then assisting the firefighter who was forming, deploying and tracking search teams. I had pages of scribbled names, times, and assignment notes, and knew I had made at least one mistake in records that were barely legible. That’s when a neighbor asked me what she could do to help me. She helped get my records straight and celebrated with me when the mistake I was worried about reported back safely at the end of his assignment.

That same neighbor showed up after the recent roof collapse. She and other volunteers stepped in to handle the check-in of volunteers. That freed fire department members to handle other tasks.

Asking for Help

I don’t know how people who volunteered after the tornado in 2007 learned about the crisis response but suspect many were following fire department communications on their scanners. As I recall, an officer initially radioed to set up an incident command at the scene. Later we moved that command post a few miles away to our fire station, where more volunteers reported and waited for assignments.

After the recent roof collapse, we knew we would need additional manpower. So we asked for help, and we tried to be specific.

First, we let the community know what was happening with this post on Facebook:

Calling for volunteers today: Snow collapsed the roof at the White Lake Fire Department station this morning. Heavy equipment is coming to help lift the roof off their fire trucks. Additional volunteers will be needed after that — approximately noon today — to help move contents from the building. Able-bodied volunteers should report to the staging area across the street at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in White Lake.

The White Lake department copied that post and shared it as they traveled back across the state. A few members of both departments took a moment to share on their personal Facebook pages. People on the scene were having to ignore texts from friends and family asking what was happening and how they could help. But we knew the word was out and we had made a specific request for able-bodied volunteers and told them where to report.

Meanwhile, our officers contacted dispatch to request manpower from our mutual aid partners. To be confident insurance will cover a volunteer firefighter who might be injured in the line of duty, they need to be paged out.

The same is true for the American Red Cross. Because I know local Red Cross volunteers, I called them at home. They gave me the phone number to call so they would be dispatched — and covered by insurance. That afternoon, the American Red Cross arrived to feed 85 volunteers from eight fire departments and the community. Many of those volunteers were at the scene for nearly eight hours.

American Red Cross volunteers arrived with much-appreciated food, water and fruit. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

People Have to Eat

I remember as a kid all the ladies in the community showing up at a barn fire with coffee and sandwiches — neighbors helping neighbors. That hasn’t changed, but incident commanders can be anxious about having more people in and out or on the scene.

A message from the Rural Assembly

These days we have a name for these volunteers – rehab teams. These are folks who help emergency workers remain fed, hydrated, and sufficiently rested so they can work on the front line as safely as possible. Rehab teams are critical, but they add to the number of personnel around the command post and incident scene.

One sub-zero night at a house fire we made the conscious decision to keep half of our rehab team off-site working on food to deliver later, or to replace the pair working rehab at the icy scene if one or both were injured in a fall. That night, the next-door neighbor opened her home so we had a place to plug in Crock-Pots. I hate to think what her floors looked like after we left.

But crisis response is hard work. Our department’s rehab team also works hard to monitor our emergency responders’ condition — especially during a long-duration event. At the roof collapse, once our officers had outlined the crisis response plan, we ordered lunch for the first response team. While they were hustling to move contents from the less damaged offices of the fire department and EMS to another location, the staff at the local market was hustling to make sandwiches. We wanted our people to eat before heavy equipment and the next wave of volunteers arrived.

The White Lake Market has fed us on other fire scenes. We ask them to wrap sandwiches loosely in deli wrap so it’s easy for firefighters to manage in heavy gloves if necessary. At one cold early-morning fire, the market emptied their shelves of bread, lunch meat and cheese and we slapped together cold sandwiches in the snow at the scene because we knew none of us had had breakfast. We’re lucky to have a market — many rural areas have lost theirs. And few of us have enough food on hand to feed a small army at short notice.

Still, people are eager to offer food for a crisis response, and it’s greatly appreciated. At the roof collapse, a fire department family member arrived at the church with not only hot dogs and chili but also with disposable bowls, lids and utensils.

But it can be like hosting a family reunion where 30 people just need to put this in your fridge or pop that in the oven. And it’s hard to tell folks how many we’ll be feeding, where to take the food, what time we’ll need it, whether we will have electricity, or when they can pick up empty containers. We may have to close a road or we’re far from a road or there are other safety concerns or logistical challenges. In any case, getting stuff from six or eight different vehicles to the scene or command post is a puzzle to be figured out while a dozen other things are happening.

So we appreciate having a list of phone numbers to call in more help. At one training burn I seriously underestimated the amount of ice we would need for cooling overheated firefighters on a hot day. My rehab partner made a call and soon ice was delivered to our traffic control station and relayed to the scene. There may not be much glory in picking up ice, but help like that is invaluable to a rural volunteer department. If you can provide that sort of help, ask someone on your local department, “Who do I tell to call me if you need anything?” Then make sure you give them your contact info. Your text offering help might go unread for hours, but if you’re on their list of resources they will call you. Thank you in advance for answering the call in the middle of the night.

Area TV stations saw the Facebook post asking for volunteers and sent reporters to the scene. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

Media Matters

After the roof collapse, I didn’t see messages sent to our department’s Facebook page and posts about helping until hours after they were sent. A larger department might have someone who can monitor social media. We’re spread too thin. When those messages arrived, our fastest texter (not me) was racing to get the contents of the chief’s office moved to a safe location, then racing from task to task all day. She was still going when she sent me home once I had exhausted my usefulness.

One of those messages was from a local TV reporter on his way to the scene. We weren’t surprised that the media came. And we were better prepared for it than after the tornado. Then, we had several miles between teams and the command post and hardly anyone who knew more about what was happening than just what they could see in front of them. When TV crews showed up on the scene of our tornado response, they set up to film on the highway. At one point I did leave my assigned task and ask a reporter to move to a safer location. He moved to the shoulder. When the road opened again, drivers were all looking the other way and emergency vehicles were moving around and all I could do was hope that guy had an angel on his shoulder. If not, it could have taken EMS resources out of the area while lots of volunteers were risking life and limb in the search effort.

After the roof collapse, we did a better job of working with the media. We assigned volunteers to stay with reporters, to watch their backs while they did their job and try to keep them out of the way. And I’m pleased to report the only casualty was the bowl of chili one reporter set down on the snow while filming an interview. A dog ate it.

I hope we never have to use social media, but if we do, we learned an important lesson about it. Our Facebook post asking for volunteers after the roof collapse had 646 shares. People were still sharing it a couple days later. The White Lake Fire Department copied the text and images from our post for their own separate post (470 shares). Regional and national media used our images in their reporting. On a public page, anything posted may spread further than you ever anticipated. If you’re going to use social media, it’s important to get it right.

And even if you don’t use it, your community will use social media, and you have to be prepared for that. It never occurred to us at the roof collapse to ask people on the scene to not post anything from the scene, although that is the protocol in some departments. It would be in ours, too, if there had been fatalities or minors involved. Most of the time there’s only a handful of people to respond, and they’re way too busy to be on their phones.

But when you’re trying to manage a crisis response and there are so many pressing concerns, social media is easy to overlook. A few years ago members of our department responded to help with the search for a 3-year-old. We learned that the child had been found from the chief’s wife, who was at church 30 miles away and saw video of the unharmed child posted by a volunteer searcher as they carried him out of the corn field.

How You Can Help

In my experience, people who want to help are happy to comply with reasonable requests. They might wish for a bit more explanation, or information about what’s going on. There will always be those who want to know, “Did you think of this? Have you done that? Do you know about…?” And those can be valuable contributions. They’re less likely to help if observers are just saying them to the lookie-loos standing around, though. So, if you really want to help at a crisis response in your own community, remember a few things.

  • Come prepared. Dress for conditions, and for conditions to change. Slip a flashlight in your pocket, along with a couple granola bars. Go to the toilet before you depart and drink some water on the way.
  • Sign in. When you arrive find the incident command post. Sign in when you arrive, sign out when you leave. That helps us keep track of people and resources during the event, and in applying for disaster recovery grants afterwards.
  • Special resources. When you sign in, advise the incident commander of any special skills, knowledge or equipment you have brought with you. The incident commander who is piecing together the big picture needs to know what resources are available. They may not use them, and you might not know why. I guarantee they won’t have time to explain that there’s a scent trail they’re trying to preserve for a dog team, or that they want to hold you in reserve to have a fresh team available later. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
  • Be honest about your capabilities. It’s hard to say, “I’m not sure I’m fit for this task.” But if I can say it, so can you.
  • Stay put. The absolute hardest thing to do is stand around waiting for who knows what. But if you wander off to watch the action, no one has time to track you down for an assignment.
  • Every little bit helps. You have no idea how grateful I am every time someone lightens my load when I’m moving water and Gatorade to a staging area. Lifting, toting, picking up trash, offering a seat to another tired volunteer — those things are more helpful than you can imagine.
  • Keep your eyes open. Stay alert for your own safety, and that of those around you. Resources are already stretched too thin to take needless chances. And beyond that, you may be in a position to notice things no one else has spotted, or to comfort a neighbor, or to keep the dog from eating the reporter’s chili.

And if you want to help without the incentive of a crisis, contact your local volunteer fire department or emergency medical services and ask what you can do. Rural departments are desperate for volunteers, and not just for the disasters that make the news.

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural Langlade County, Wisconsin. She says one of the best things you can donate to a disaster response effort is fruit. Wash it first. Cut bananas in half, then remove a thin strip of the peel so the rest is easy to remove. Cut oranges into segments. Core and slice apples and toss them with a little lemon juice to prevent browning. Portioning a few apple and orange pieces in snack-size baggies makes them easy to distribute. They will be appreciated.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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