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"Disaster Deployment Basics "
What you need to know your first time out.


Disaster Deployment Gear Photo

Exclusive FullyInvolvedFire.com Content
By: Lt. Ryan G. Christen

            Disasters can strike anytime, anywhere.  Some may be predictable while otherscan occur without any warning. Often these events affecting so many lives that it is beyond the capability of local resources to handle. As members of Fire Department Task Forces, Wild land Firefighter Teams, Urban Search and Rescue Teams, Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, or any other of a number of special teams we are the ones called upon to assist with incident stabilization, or recovery efforts.
            While attending EMT school early in my career I had the privilege of responding to Flagler County, Florida for the 1998 wildfires as a student and observer of Florida One Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT). This was my introduction to major event deployments.  The team quickly set up a care station for thousands of firefighters operating in and around the camp. In the few days that I was with Fl-1 DMAT I watched as they treated the firefighters working the lines. The food was bad, the climate was unbearably hot, and we slept on government cots with no air conditioning. I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a part of something like that in my career.
            Several years later in my career I got my “Red Card” for wild land fire fighting. In 2002 I got my first “wild land” deployment with 20 other firefighters from around Florida. We were called to work in Colorado on the Hayman Fire. Our team spent twenty days out west and I learned volumes about the deployment world.
In total I have deployed on Two Wild Land Fire Details, Three Hurricane Deployments as a Logistics Co-ordinator for a Disaster Team, one Hurricane Deployment as an Engine Company Officer, and countless short term out of district deployments with a wild land task force.
 Although the three hurricane deployments were very different incidents, the
Task Force a different mission, and all different from the wild fire deployment to
Colorado, I did find several similarities. Things I learned at each deployment made the next less stressful. In the event that you may find yourself being deployed to a major event there are certain things you should know before departure, during the mission, and returning home that will ensure a more successful experience.

Pre-Deployment
            Planning and preparation will have a tremendous impact on the success of your deployment. It is difficult to be entirely prepared and packed since the experience can differ dramatically depending on the type of incident, team, mission, and geographic region. However there are certain steps you can take that are universal.
            The first step towards readiness is your bag and gear. I recommend that once you commit yourself to any team or organization to prep your bag. Some of the items you need will vary depending upon the variables of your deployment. The best way to determine these items is to talk to others who have “been there”. Call your team members with deployment experience, and ask what items you may need to take. If you’re newly red carded for wild land firefighting, you can call your local division of forestry for assistance with pre-deployment preparations. Ask who has been on a fire deployment. The “veterans” in your field are one of your best sources of information.
            Once you know what items to pack, its time to start making checklists. Trust me, without a checklist, you will forget something. I have four checklists in a folder in the top of my bag: one summer and winter checklist for DMAT, and a summer and winter checklist for wildland deployments. These checklists include specific items you will need
that you cannot keep in your bag at all times. It is important to note there are weight restrictions when flying. 65lbs. for summer, and 55lbs for winter (winter is a relative term to geographic regions).
            There are items that can be kept in your bag at all times to minimize your workload when you are called. These items include socks, underwear, and t-shirts. I also have a separate shaving kit that stays in my bag that includes a razor, toothpaste, hand soap, and shampoo. Soap and shampoo may not be available where you are going so be sure to take them with you. You can get small travel sizes at Wal-Mart for around a dollar each.  Pack as many items as possible in advance so that you only need the few remaining things on your checklist.
            Make a separate checklist for tasks that you must handle before leaving. You may need someone to pick up your paycheck or drop off a bill. If you have a pet, list several people that may be able to care for it or phone numbers for grooming houses in your area. Some additional items I have include raising or lowering my thermostat, checking all locks, vacation food for my fish, and unplugging computers and the cable. It may sound silly to put such things on a list, but when you’re cutting fire lines on the side of a mountain or treating a patient that lost their home in a hurricane, you don’t want to be wondering whether you locked the back door. Checklists make deployments easier, and take a little stress from of an already difficult task.
            A final item of importance is what I call my “trip bag”. This is a very small bag that can be carried with you on a flight. The items in this bag are immediate use items.
My ‘trip bag’ includes the following: a book, a small notebook and pens, a small headlamp or flashlight, spare batteries, one change of clothes, several snack bars or snack food, a disposable camera, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant. These are items that will prove necessary in the event that your main bag is lost or inaccessible upon arrival. On my wild land deployment we arrived late at night and set up our tents on a dark mountainside. This relatively simple task would have been much easier for me with a flashlight or headlamp.

Deployment Phase
            When you find yourself on a deployment you may not know the other members of your team. When I went out for western fire detail, I met up with 20 other firefighters from Florida whom I had never met. During DMAT missions, the roster of members can differ dramatically, and although we train together on a regular basis there are always new members. The point is, get to know your teammates. You will be living in close proximity to these people for several weeks. Use your travel time with the team to learn their names, and backgrounds. This is a great chance for you to get an idea of what your mission may entail. The members that have experience will be eager to answer your questions. A first deployment will make anyone a little nervous. This is your time to set your mind at ease regarding your mission, before your feet hit the ground.
            Another important item regarding deployments is patience. On my first wildland deployment I was energized, and ready to hit the fire lines. While traveling, we were reassigned to different fires several times. In fact we began calling ourselves the wanderers.  Finally on the third day of travel we made it to our new destination, and set up camp. By this point my excitement and energy was greatly diminished. Frustration was quickly taking its place. When I responded to Hurricane Charley our DMAT team spent one night in a hotel staging for a mission assignment. Again, we were ready to work, and frustrated that we were not. We knew there were places we were needed, and did not want to be staging. There is always a tremendous amount of confusion following, and during disaster events. Countless resources are brought in and staged in the best possible locations. But, these teams cannot just be dropped in anywhere. It is critical that they are placed in a location to provide the greatest good for the greatest numbers. This takes time. Overhead teams, and command members must assess the entire situation which often changes before their eyes. It is infinitely better to wait a day or two for a mission that will help hundreds or thousands rather than putting a team to work just for the sake of it. Be prepared to “hurry up and wait”, don’t let it frustrate you. Be patient waiting for a mission where you can make a difference.
            Once on your mission you could be working anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours a day, often for days at a time with very little “down time”. For this reason it is absolutely critical you allow time for yourself when you can. When hiking through the mountains around Pikes Peak on the wildfires we would take lunch breaks on burned out hillsides. My crew boss told us all to rest up and gave us around an hour each day. On the first day, I looked around and saw several of the veterans finding shady trees, pulling their helmets over their eyes, and grabbing a quick power nap. In my own foolishness I did not follow their lead. After several days I was entirely exhausted, and as a result beginning to burn out. The naps were not because they were tired; it was to keep them from becoming so. Equally important is to take yourself away from the mission when allowed. If you are given a night off from whatever the assignment, take it. Go hit your bunk and read. If possible go for a walk. Do anything that does not involve the work. I have been on deployments with DMAT where we worked in shifts. I found myself hanging out at our operations site and helping even though our team commander had given me and others the night off. Although dedication is good, it is very easy to burn out when surrounded by disaster. Take time to step back, and let your mind relax.
            In most cases of being called for a deployment you will know how long you are expected to be gone. DMATs are assigned missions for fourteen days. Wildland firefighting deployments are twenty-one days. These are the maximum lengths of time without being asked to extend. Always plan to be gone the full length of time. Often several days into a mission teams may be advised that they will be going home early. I have seen members become excited about that prospect, and immediately start making plans back home. Then, as the incident changes or new needs arise the team is re-assigned to a new mission, and the early departure cancelled. When you are on a mission do not allow yourself to start making plans back home for an early return until you are on the way home.  It is easy to become very excited about going home early, only to be disappointed when re-assigned or extended. This kind of disappointment has a big impact on team morale.  Always expect to be there the full length of time.
Finally, while on a mission I highly recommend keeping a journal with you. Use this to write down contact information of team members and other people you meet. Deployments are a tremendous opportunity to make contacts with people you would have otherwise not met. You will want to keep in touch with these folks to trade pictures, etc. A notebook is also a great way to log your experience. Write down things you do and lessons you learn. This notebook will be a great asset when you return home.

Returning home:
            As your mission is brought to a close and you begin the demobilization process you may or may not be ready to go home. You may feel that there is still work left for you and your team. It is however entirely out of your control. Be proud of the work you and your team have done, and look forward to getting back to “your life”. There will however be an adjustment phase upon your return. For weeks after returning from Colorado I was waking up at four in the morning, and could not fall asleep until late at night. I was restless and found myself looking for things to keep as busy as possible during the day. When returning from Hurricane Charley I caught myself driving down the road and “filling in the blanks” so to speak. I had become so accustomed to seeing the devastation that I would look at neighborhoods and shopping centers and imagine what they would like after a hurricane hit (unfortunately shortly after return I did not find myself doing this since we were hit from Ivan). It was strange to see people mowing their lawns and washing their cars, oblivious to what was occurring elsewhere in Florida. Other members told me stories about looking for bottled water around their houses to brush their teeth for days following their return home.
 While on a deployment you are surrounded by devastation and quickly become accustomed to it. As emergency workers we are very capable of these adjustments. However we are not as good at taking ourselves out of the situation when it’s over. When you return, take a day or two off. Give your mind a chance to step out of the “disaster mode” you have to put yourself into. Take time to rest, and do everything you can to get back to normal. Go to a movie, take your kids to the mall, or go out on a date.  Step back, and let yourself “come out of it”.
            After a few days of relaxing and getting back on track, take a little while to re-supply your travel bags. Re-pack the items that you can. Throw away shampoo, soap, and toothpaste that you used. At a dollar or so each, these items are easily replaceable, and having new un-opened supplies in your bag helps maintain your ready status. Also, take a few minutes to review your journal. Go over the lessons that you learned. Inevitably there will be something you would have liked to have had with you on the deployment, but did not.  This notebook will help you remember that, and allow you to make adjustments to your pre-deployment checklists so that your next deployment will be much easier.
            My first deployment to Colorado was a wonderful learning experience. However it was tremendously stressful. I did not know what I needed for preparation, or what the work would be like. I spent most of my travel time worrying about the items I packed. I felt a bit like an outsider because I did not get to know my teammates right off the bat. While working I became tired and started hoping to go home early. The lessons that I learned in Colorado and on following deployments have had a tremendous impact. My latest deployment was a smooth and successful deployment. I was ready. I used my travel time to relax and get ready for the mission. While working I was able to focus clearly on the tasks without stress or becoming tired.
            Deploying to major events is exciting. It teaches lessons that you won’t learn turning wheels on an engine, or truck company. These lessons and experiences make you a stronger, more experienced, and all around better professional in your field. These events can be stressful, but with a little help and preparation you can experience a successful deployment. Take the time to prep your gear, and learn your mission. Get to know your team. Work hard, but take time for yourself. Finally, utilize a day or two for yourself upon return. These few simple things will make a tremendous difference in the overall success of your deployment.


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