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What can Irish firefighters learn from Superstorm Sandy?

A New York fire fighter visited Cork this week to talk to the Irish Chief Officers Association annual conference – here’s some of what he told them.

FROM 9/11 TO Superstorm Sandy, New York’s fire service has had to contend with some of the world’s worst natural and man-made disasters of the past 15 years.

What it learned from these events has led its members to improve how they do their work – and earlier this week they passed their knowledge on to Irish fire fighters, during the annual Irish Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) conference.

The facade of a four-story building on 14th Street and 8th Avenue collapsed onto the sidewalk as FDNY firefighters respond during Superstorm Sandy.  (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)

Superstorm Sandy struck the east coast of the US in late October of last year. In New York, it forced the shutdown of subways, schools and financial markets. It sent residents from coastal areas fleeing, as high winds and harsh rain soaked the city.

John Ryan of the CPOA said that Irish fire fighters are eager to learn from what others have done abroad. At the conference, they had the opportunity to hear from Robert Maynes, who has considerable experience in dealing with high-profile disasters.

He journeyed to the conference in Cork from New York, where he is a fire commander in the borough of Queens. A member of the fire service for 33 years, he has seen lots of changes take place in how fire fighters do their work, and has worked during major disasters to keep New Yorkers safe.

Damage caused by a fire at Breezy Point is shown Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in in the New York City borough of Queens. Pic: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

During Hurricane Irene in 2011, New Yorkers had been warned that a direct hit would be disastrous. But when the hurricane didn’t hit exactly as planned – though it caused destruction and even deaths – that led to people assuming Superstorm Sandy also wouldn’t affect them as much.

“Hurricane Irene hurt us,” said Maynes. When Irene didn’t flood the Rockaway and Staten Island areas, people thought that the same would happen with Hurricane Sandy, so chose not to evacuate.

We said it was going to happen the next year and the water was colder, it shouldn’t have been as big a hurricane but nobody believed us and stayed home. It was a bit of a case of the boy who cried wolf.

Large waves generated by Hurricane Sandy crash into Jeanette’s Pier in Nags Head, NC. Pic: AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

This in itself is a lesson for Irish fire fighters – that nature rarely does what you expect, but you always have to be prepared for the worst.

For Maynes, the key in dealing with tough situations, which are often life-or-death situations, is being prepared.

For example, the fire service was a little ahead of everyone else when it came to Superstorm Sandy, knowing that it was poised to hit. However, it had a tough job convincing every citizen living in New York that they needed to be prepared too – although huge amounts of people left the city, others chose to remain at home and had to be rescued.

Research

Post 9/11, the terrorist attack which itself led to the deaths of many fire fighters, the emergency services knew they had to be prepared for the unimaginable.

As part of their research into preparing for unknown future events, New York fire fighters were sent around the country to see how their colleagues deal with serious incidents.

After 9/11, a consulting company visited the fire department and recommended what they should do to increase preparedness for another disaster, said Maynes. He said they used quite a few things successfully, including borough commands to improve communication between New York’s five boroughs.

“We have an incident management team which I was part of; that’s how we got our experience going other places,” he added. In 2005, they went to New Orleans after the devastating Hurricane Katrina for six weeks to see work on the ground there.

Much of lower Manhattan remains dark in the wake of superstorm Sandy, power outages plagued much of the New York area. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)

This work paid off – on the night of Hurricane Sandy, they had to fight five major fires alone in Queens, while 20,000 homes were flooded.

Their post-storm support was mostly tree operations, as well as ‘de-watering’ and then removing sand from the streets so that life could back to some semblance of normal, said Maynes.

The utilisation of an incident command system is very important, Maynes told TheJournal.ie. It helps the team “to organise and take something that is chaotic and return it to normal”.

Fire fighters need be prepared – but they also need to be flexible enough to respond to disasters outside their normal scope, he cautioned. In Queens, for example, they realised they need more special apparatus to deal with disasters – such as fire engines and equipment that can cope with being submerged in salt water.

This was a lesson they learned during Superstorm Sandy. The fire service also learned a lot through simulating its own fake hurricane, Hurricane Noreen. This ‘hit’ the Rockaway area – and it transpired that when Sandy hit, it hit in almost the same way they had anticipated during the simulated exercise.

They also had a firehouse in Rockaway that was in the evacuation zone during Sandy. Again, preparation helped avoid disaster here.

“We knew it was high enough that it wouldn’t flood and we confirmed [that] with handheld GPS,” explained Maynes They moved everyone in there and almost everything went to plan.

Their planning and preparation paid off and they were able to save lives and fight fires using vehicles that weren’t affected by the hurricane.

Ireland

Are the lessons different for Ireland? No, said Maynes.

For Ireland, those lessons are the same. It could be in Ireland, South America, Australia – those same tools we use to fix this would work for terrorism, work for commercial accidents, work for search and rescue.

Just because Ireland is smaller than the US, it doesn’t mean a disaster would not be of the same scale. “It could easily be worse,” warned Maynes. They aim to “learn from our mistakes – always look to improve over the last time”.

FDNY firefighters glare up at a damaged crane as it hangs over 57th Street after being torn from its base by high winds during Superstorm Sandy. Pic: AP Photo/ John Minchillo

Plus, it’s not just natural events they have to contend with. “It’s all those other challenges the fire chiefs face,” said Maynes.

Political challenges, economic challenges; they have to make decisions based on a bad economy that they are not comfortable with. They need to prioritise and decide what’s the best value.

Above all, they need “to be flexible, to be able to adapt to outside the box”. In Queens, “we have the same challenges too”, said Maynes.

That ability to adapt and be flexible when unexpected things happen; and the other part is to research it, because history does repeat itself and sometimes we get caught when we shouldn’t have.

This backs up what John Ryan said of the ‘new reality’ facing Ireland’s fire service: it has “to adapt and be competent to meet current and future challenges against a background of budget and service constraints, changing personnel demography, greater scrutiny and wider demands on the service it delivers to the community”.

They may be thousands of miles apart, but Ireland and New York have much to learn from each other. Plus, as Maynes found out when he met his Irish family in Limerick, the world is a lot smaller than it may seem.

Read: Sons of Irish emigrant swept away in storm as mother ‘couldn’t get help’>

Pics: Superstorm Sandy hits the US>

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