CARSON, Calif. -- With natural disasters increasing in frequency and intensity, first responders are finding it more difficult to reach and rescue the thousands of victims of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.
Throughout the country, many emergency units have fewer people to navigate disaster response, meaning they have to do more with less.
"So even if you were the slickest agency in the world, and you dealt with disasters all the time ... if you train every day, a disaster is still called a disaster for a reason," said Amy Donahue, a professor in the department of public policy at the University of Connecticut. "Even if you devoted all of your resources to these rare events, you still would find yourself struggling to manage them."
In 2015, the Federal Emergency Management Agency published "Operational Lessons Learned in Disaster Response," which highlighted lessons learned over the past decade for first responders tackling disaster-related events. It also made recommendations, including more cooperation between agencies and communities, disaster-specific training and more efforts to help individuals fend for themselves.
The report based many of its suggestions on a 2006 study published a year after Hurricane Katrina — which Donahue co-authored — that emphasized poor communications, uncoordinated leadership, weak planning, resource constraints and limited training and exercises as areas in need of improvement.
"Even if the last generation learned those lessons," Donahue said, "the next generation better learn them because the disaster is going to do exactly the same thing again."
In southern Louisiana, St. Bernard Parish District Fire Chief Mike LeBeau said he went through Hurricane Katrina with 420 people in two shelters and limited resources. They made do with what they had until a relief force came in — from Canada.
"Because we felt like everything was going to the city (New Orleans) instead of coming to us, there was some bad feelings there," LeBeau recalled. "Not toward the city themselves, but against the federal programs that are in place to offer aid. I kind of thought (the federal government) was very slow to react."
Those lessons changed his mind about his department's ability to respond.
During Katrina, the fire department had to commandeer private boats to rescue people from floodwaters because it didn't have its own. Now, it has a swift-water rescue team.
"We do a lot more training now," LeBeau said. "We're constantly training on different tactics and procedures."
But experts say it's almost impossible to be fully prepared.
"The next disaster is never going to be the same," said Louise Comfort, former director of the Center for Disaster Management at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's important to go through those events and learn them, but the hard part is anticipating what the next disaster is going to be."
"While I think it's very useful to do after-action plans and identify what the failures were in that particular instance, those lessons need to be projected forward," she said.
The number of career firefighters has increased over the past three years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but smaller communities still rely on volunteers as their primary first responders. And the number of volunteers is decreasing.
"In most of the country, volunteers are the predominant workforce protecting the country," Donahue said. "And so even during disasters, a lot of the help and work is done by volunteers."
Of the nearly 30,000 fire departments in the U.S., about two-thirds are all-volunteer. Since 2015, the number of volunteer firefighters has fallen to 682,600 from 814,850, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.
"The bottom line is that people have a lot less time than they used to," said Natalie Simpson, associate professor of operations management and strategy at University at Buffalo.
The number of emergency calls to fire departments continues to increase nationally, according to a National Fire Protection Association Survey, and the range of services firefighters are expected to provide is expanding.
Both career and volunteer firefighters are now trained in emergency medical services and multihazard responses. It's rare that they respond to actual fires, and even rarer to a natural disaster. Still, experts say they need to be prepared.
"For safety's sake," Simpson said, "there is a lot more training now than there ever was, so this will continue to be a problem."
FILLING THE GAPS
Mutual aid agreements, which establish the terms of sharing resources in a pinch, help jurisdictions coordinate disaster preparedness.
Although some agencies use formal agreements to share resources, many communities are used to assisting neighboring departments, especially in disasters.
Raymond Oliver was in his Hamilton, Mississippi, home the night of April 13 when a pair of tornadoes hit the state. As the storm grew stronger, Oliver said he heard a roar from the wind like he had never heard in the 66 years he lived there.
Oliver is the fire chief of Hamilton's fire department, staffed entirely by a dozen volunteers. At first, he and his wife hunkered down in the hallway of their home, but when his fire station radio began to chirp with calls, he knew he had to act.
Navigating his pickup around downed trees and debris blocking the dark road, he found his way to the station — now a pile of rubble covering its five fire vehicles.
Using his own truck, Oliver responded to the disaster calls and eventually was joined by his volunteer crew.
Hamilton's station served about 1,400 people in a town with one traffic light and one main highway; the next closest station is 14 miles away. The other 12 all-volunteer stations in Monroe County came to Hamilton's aid, Oliver said.
"My firemen, along with numerous firemen, were out that night — and it was still thundering, lightning and raining and gutting trees — going house-to-house searching for people," he said.
The towns have a mutual aid agreement to pool resources, which allowed them to effectively respond to a devastating event that exceeded its station's capabilities.
"I didn't have to call them," Oliver said. "They automatically come if they know we're in this situation."
The Monroe County fire departments, along with those from nearby counties and Alabama, stepped in to help Hamilton rebuild and recover.
"We do not have a written mutual aid agreement with Alabama," Oliver said, "but in a situation like that, we don't care. We go help."
But in large-scale disasters, local help likely isn't enough.
TRAINING FOR THE BIG ONE
According to a 2017 report from the Department of Homeland Security, local fire departments typically are prepared and trained for their day-to-day volume of calls. But in large-scale disasters, they are less prepared. In coordination with FEMA, communities are doing disaster-specific training exercises.
"We're always planning for the worst," said Willie Barrington, the deputy chief of training for the Seattle Fire Department.
Much of the Pacific Northwest is in the Cascadia Subduction Zone — a 621-mile-long area projected to receive an 8- to 9-magnitude earthquake every 200 to 500 years — and the last such quake struck more than 300 years ago.
Barrington said Seattle, along with other departments from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, participated in a FEMA exercise in 2016 designed to test joint operations across federal, state, county and city governments in the event of a catastrophic disaster.
"Some of these things are low-frequency, high-hazard events, such as an earthquake, tsunami, something like that," he said. "Trying to squeeze those types of training to support those events, as well as our basic firefighting skills, can be challenging, and funding is always a challenge for us."
Responders usually rely on specialty training to react to disasters, such as swift-water rescues or structural collapse, but not every firefighter is certified.
In addition to training for disasters, the Department of Homeland Security recommended more operational coordination and communication between agencies in law enforcement, fire and medical services at local, state, federal and tribal levels.
"It's kind of impressive, our various organizations in the United States," Simpson said. "They're pretty sophisticated. Sometimes it doesn't look pretty because it's not rehearsed, and it is an emergency. But I'd give them really good grades for coordination and cooperation."
The FEMA followup report about the Cascadia exercise urged emergency management agencies to be creative in allocating their supplies and staff members to overcome the inevitable and overwhelming shortage of resources — shortages that cropped up in the exercise.
"Jurisdictions often benefit more from a somewhat more modest set of scenarios where it doesn't take such an enormous effort just to create the exercise," Donahue said. "And they can spend more attention on some of the fundamental things that really matter, like building relationships across agencies."
FEMA coordinates similar large-scale training exercises in other parts of the country that could incur major disasters. Most recently, FEMA held a response and recovery exercise near Memphis in May, simulating an earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone that could impact eight states and displace more than 700,000 people.
Barrington said states have been told to expect up to 72 hours for a federal response, but in some cases it will take days longer.
"We've learned through some of our exercises, through Cascadia, which was a national exercise, that maybe it's more realistic to expect that help in a week and maybe two weeks," Barrington said. "With those kinds of time frames, it's very important that the citizens be able to have the resources available that they can survive and live for multiple days without help."
'EVERYBODY IS A FIRST RESPONDER'
Last year, FEMA released its 2018-22 Strategic Plan for disaster response, which emphasized "shared responsibility across all layers of government down to the individual." In other words, residents of the affected communities are their own first responders.
"If you're talking about a sudden large-scale disaster, there will never, ever, ever be enough professional first responders right when they're needed, right when a disaster strikes," Simpson said. "Everybody is a first responder."
Even FEMA defines first responders as those closest to the impacted areas during an emergency or disaster. In FEMA's after-action report on the 2017 hurricane season, residents and nonprofit organizations were among those who lessened the burden on fire, police and emergency medical services.
"We've kind of built up this mythology that somebody is going to be there and save you," former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said. "And the person that saves you is maybe yourself or your neighbor."
In parts of the country, ordinary Americans are learning about what disasters they can expect and how they should be prepared for the aftermath.
Community Emergency Response Teams were created so that local and state emergency departments could have trained volunteers to respond in emergency situations. CERT became a national program in 1993 and now has over 2,700 local programs nationwide, with more than 600,000 individuals trained since the program's inception.
Firefighters and EMTs with the Los Angeles County Fire Department conduct CERT training in different cities across the county, based on the FEMA program. Luis Gonzalez, a Los Angeles County Fire Department CERT instructor teaches classes in Carson, California.
"I saw communities burn," Gonzalez said, referring to his firefighting experience during the 2010 Station Fire in Southern California's Angeles National Forest. "Just becoming a CERT instructor is giving me the opportunity to give the information that (people) need ... so they won't suffer like the way I've seen people suffer in disasters."
The number of police officers is also declining. The number of sworn officers was at 725,000 in 2013 and has declined to just more than 701,000 in 2016, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey.
Numbers of certified emergency medical services personnel, including emergency medical technicians, totaled 374,063 in 2016 and 406,939 in 2018; but, like volunteer firefighters, those EMS services in rural areas that are made up of volunteers are declining.
During a disaster, it may be up to family, neighbors and even strangers to save themselves and others.
"They're saved by bystanders," Simpson said. "That's actually the frontline of first response in a large-scale disaster."
The responsibilities that emergency responders have — such as search and rescue, evacuations and securing damaged areas — along with a limited number of available responders, makes it more difficult to respond to everyone at once.
"People, just individual, regular people like us," Donahue said, "don't tend to put too much, if any, energy into being ready in the most simple and basic ways for a disaster. If a whole lot of people were just a little bit more prepared, it would make a very big difference."
News21 reporters Justine Coleman, Sophie Grosserode, Katie Hunger, and Peter Nicieja also contributed to this report. Jake Goodrick is a Hearst Foundation Fellow. Sophie Grosserode is a John and Patty Williams Fellow. Katie Hunger and Peter Nicieja are Myrta J. Pulliam fellows. Brigette Waltermire is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow.
About this project: This report is part of "State of Emergency," a project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.