Using Field Research To Improve Disaster Response

Submitted By

Pete Abrahams
Marin County MRC, California
September 17, 2013

In 2013, NACCHO awarded a Competitive Capacity Building Award to the Marin Medical Reserve Corps Foundation to explore best practices in MMRC/CERT and MMRC/Hospital collaboration in Marin County, California. This article describes how we used modified field research to examine the contribution citizen first responders make immediately following a disaster and before they are officially deployed by government.

Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge includes active faults and has experienced earthquakes, wild land fires and floods. The majority of its population of 255,000, lives in cities along Highway 101, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Significant numbers of Marin residents have access and functional needs. Moderate to severe disasters will rapidly overwhelm on-duty emergency managers, first responders and the county’s three hospitals. Off-duty personnel, most of whom live out of county, will be delayed or unable to reach their duty stations. Many citizens will not have access to professional emergency care for extended periods. During this period, Citizen First Responders will fill the gap in services. Citizen First Responders are MMRC, CERT, Neighborhood Response Group and spontaneous volunteers. Although not a fully organized system with defined protocols and procedures, CFRs will: a) rescue, triage and treat the sick and injured; b) collect patient and damage assessment information and report via amateur radio to professional incident command centers; c) transport sick and injured to casualty collection points; d) assist with repeat triage and treatment at casualty collection points; e) provide extended care to patients.

Our project goals were to:

  • produce learning that will inform policy and programs, and
  • to stimulate initiatives and projects that will optimize collaboration.

Project staff engaged disaster management stakeholders in focused conversations about complex challenges all of them share, i.e., how sick and injured citizens will be rescued, triaged and treated after a moderate or severe disaster, when 911 emergency services may not be available for days or weeks. Our working principle was that informed public servants and citizens have knowledge that is not actionable until it and its implications are publicly acknowledged. We assumed that if framed correctly, our conversations about disaster response would expand to include sound practices, gaps in service, major challenges and potential initiatives/projects to optimize operations.

We identified 50 knowledgeable and active stakeholders in disaster management in the county, including government officials and volunteers. The list included emergency managers and other public servants, members of Disaster Councils (public/private collaborations,) MMRC, CERT and Neighborhood Response Group volunteers, and amateur radio operators. NACCHO funds were used to pay one interviewer/project leader. All other labor was volunteer. Our conversations rapidly and repeatedly identified overlapping themes and patterns in early disaster response. Thorough debriefings of the conversations helped us sharpen and more clearly define best practices and challenges, e.g., the critical role of citizen first responders working as Good Samaritans; the valuable role of amateur radio; command & control issues between city and county government for integrating volunteer and professional operations, and more (see full report.) A presentation to the Twin Cities Disaster Council resulted in plans for a joint Corte Madera Fire Department/county/MMRC Foundation/CERT seminar/workshop that will lead to a Corte Madera community drill. A meeting with county officials led to a workshop that explored the potential of “dialogue” and disaster risk assessment to mobilize neighborhood disaster preparedness. A conversation about similarities between disaster medicine and wilderness medicine led to a disaster medicine workshop for MMRC volunteers. A Marin MRC initiative explores how MMRC might implement a digital amateur patient tracking platform that will significantly improve real time, countywide information collection and reporting by MMRC volunteers. Discussions about the critical role of chaplains and mental health professionals has led to MMRC workshops on disaster mental health and an upcoming train-the-trainers for an MMRC Chaplains Unit. Other findings led to a 36-month plan to build high-priority capabilities in the Marin MRC.

We think that our working assumptions were correct. Publicly acknowledged best practices and/or gaps in service can stimulate innovation as well as incremental improvements in disaster response. Project staff will present findings to City and County Disaster Councils and find additional ways to engage concerned citizens, disaster management partners and stakeholders in improving disaster preparedness and response. Project update: On October 21, twenty-seven professional and Citizen First Responders (MRC, CERT and Neighborhood Response Groups) attended a four-hour workshop on collaboration during disaster response. The workshop produced goals and objectives for a joint tabletop exercise and a Corte Madera citywide community drill planned for Spring 2014. The Marin County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services is assessing the combination of field research, workshop, tabletop exercise and community drill, as a model for replication throughout Marin County.

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