Research Based Guidelines for Decision Making in Hurricane Conditions: When Do We Stop Responding?

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By Elaine Fisher

Orange County lies in East Central Florida but its nearest point to the coast is fifteen miles. In spite of this distance, Orange County has the potential to experience significant effects from a tropical storm or hurricane. The problem was that, although Orange County, Florida is potentially subject to significant effects of tropical storms and hurricanes, the Orange County Fire Rescue Department (OCFRD) did not have clear guidelines for its officers and administrators to use in the decision making process when faced with ceasing emergency incident responses due to their approach. The department last updated the Disaster Operations Guidelines pertaining to hurricanes four years ago. The update failed to take into account new technology available since then. It also used subjective terms which OCFRD personnel might have trouble interpreting properly since few had experienced a hurricane.

The purpose of this research was to provide Orange County Fire Rescue officers and administrators with research based information on wind and its effects to assist in decision making for scaling back and shutting down emergency incident responses as tropical storms or hurricanes approach. This was done through Disaster Operations Guidelines updates and the development and implementation of training.

Descriptive research was used to study the present situation and formulate a basis for a course of action to shape the future. Action research attempted to solve the problem by developing a product based on new information and technologies to guide and improve organizational performance.

This paper addressed the following questions:

  1. What wind criteria do fire service agencies use for ceasing emergency incident responses as tropical storms or hurricanes approach?
  2. Does research support the chosen criteria as appropriate?
  3. How can Orange County Fire Rescue use these findings to guide its officers and administrators in decision-making to cease emergency incident responses appropriately, when a tropical storm or hurricane threatens?

Information was collected through interviews with manufacturers' vendors, fire departments in hurricane prone areas, Orange County Emergency Management officials, and a power company representative. The literature review involved a general web search for information on wind effects and a search of the National Fire Academy's Learning Resource Center.

The author's original premise for this paper involved wind's effects on apparatus as a limiting factor to emergency incident responses as a tropical storm or hurricane approached. Supporting information, other than anecdotal, proved difficult to find. A previous applied research project pointed out that wind's effects on people and debris generation played a greater role. That applied research project led to an expanded viewpoint as well as a recently completed scientific study on the effect of wind on emergency vehicles.

The result of the research included science supported information on the effects of wind on apparatus, people, and debris generation with people being the most susceptible. It also found new technology available through the Orange County Office of Emergency Management: computer-linked weather stations in each fire station allowing local monitoring of current conditions. Recommendations resulting include updating Orange County Fire Rescue's Disaster Operations Guidelines to take into account the new technology and training for officers and administrators on specifics of wind effects to assist them in the decision making process.