There’s nothing inherently rural about school fire and tornado drills. We hope our kids and teachers never need to evacuate the building in an orderly fashion or know where to shelter if the tornado siren sounds during gym class. But stuff happens, and we want those we love to be prepared – just in case.

The same goes for our rural communities, of course. Stretching limited resources to meet the needs of people in a large geographic area is everyday stuff for many of us. But sometimes we have to stretch resources even further, making do with even less until more help can arrive during a crisis or after a catastrophe. And we have to keep on keeping on until our families and neighbors are all accounted for, immediate needs are met, and restoration of utilities, services, and infrastructure gets underway.

The first time I was part of a disaster response in my own community was in 2007 after a long-track EF3 tornado hit a country mile from my house. I did my best to support the firefighters in organizing the response. Volunteers came out of the woodwork – eager to help, certainly, but some were ill-equipped, untrained, or physically unprepared for the situation. Firefighters worked to get the road open for emergency vehicles and assigned teams of volunteers to search for victims amidst downed power lines, building materials, and what used to be trees. Meanwhile, I kept notes and lists – lots of messy lists about who was where and doing what. 

A couple of years after the tornado, I did some online training in the Incident Command System (ICS). I still have documents and checklists from that training but what stuck mostly was a nagging skepticism. To me, the system seemed top-heavy. 

In other words, I missed the point completely. It’s supposed to work by expanding and contracting as needed in a systematic way. The same basic structure can work on-scene at minor incidents and events with no impact beyond a limited local level. Or it can be scaled up for a disaster. 

This year, I’m taking ICS classes again. Or, more accurately, I’m training to support those working in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), of which ICS is a component. This time, I’m training in person and along with other members of my volunteer fire department. We’re discussing the material together and working through sample scenarios as a team. There’s a lot of, “That reminds me of…” and “Could we have…” referring to situations we have faced in real life. And in real life, we’re practicing how to use these systems as a team and working alongside other people with similar training when the sky is falling. 

Because it does. In 2019 alone, our small all-volunteer department was involved in four major incidents: a roof collapse at a neighboring fire station, a structure fire with multiple fatalities, a derecho windstorm that qualified us as a federal disaster area, and an industrial fire at one of our area’s largest employers.

In rural areas, we’re all at risk for natural disasters like flooding, tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes, earthquakes and landslides. We all face the threat of wildland fires that can become structural fires. Most of us would rather not know what potentially hazardous materials are transported on our roads and railways. Consider the worst-case effects of accidental or intentional failures at places located in sparsely populated areas – like mines, power plants, pipelines, dams, prisons, CAFOs, agricultural chemical facilities, and military bases. Or the potential for widespread outbreaks of illness (including foodborne and waterborne) and even acts of terrorism. So our communities need to be prepared to manage incidents with limited resources while waiting for help and to participate effectively in managing that help when it comes. 

You may think, “Isn’t that the job of fire departments, EMS services, and law enforcement?” Certainly, those are integral resources. But many rural communities face critical shortages of both paid and volunteer responders. So it’s important to know who else in our communities might have training in NIMS principles and the Incident Command System. 

For starters, elected and appointed officials in local, county, and tribal governments are expected to understand emergency management principles. They make policy, resource, and budget decisions – before disaster strikes as well as during response and recovery. 

Public works agencies train in NIMS because of their critical roles in protecting our roads and bridges, water and waste facilities, transit systems, and more. Public health agencies and healthcare organizations build emergency operations plans on a NIMS framework. More than 90% of hospitals in the United States use some form of the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS). 

Private sector organizations and utility companies often incorporate NIMS training in their business continuity plans. Don’t be surprised to learn that your county fair board has had some training, or the organizers of your rural area’s big annual motocross race, rock concert, or farm progress show. You make contingency plans for if it rains at your big family reunion. Why wouldn’t other organizers adopt a framework for making and implementing contingency plans – on any scale?

A key resource in rural areas is the county Emergency Manager and the state emergency management agency. Their work is as much or more about preparation and mitigation as disaster response. They are clearinghouses for information and training opportunities. 

Much of this training is offered at no cost to participants. The Department of Homeland Security offers classes in person, online, and via Zoom. Rural-focused training through Homeland Security’s Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium (RDPC) covers everything from rail car incident response and pipeline security to disaster preparedness for livestock producers and crisis management for school-based incidents.

Which brings me back to school fire and tornado drills. And the “duck and cover” drills of the 1950s and 60s. And present-day active shooter and lockdown drills. Most of us learned some systematic response to potential threats at an early age. School leaders (and often the volunteer fire chief) plan and train what to do “if and when” and then schedule regular practice. With practice, students, teachers, and staff know what to do, where to go, how to behave, and why it’s important. They plan and practice because it works.

It works outside of our schools, too. 

Planning is critical in rural areas. How do we communicate when cell towers go down? How do we evacuate and shelter elderly and disabled neighbors? How do we get across the river if the bridge is out? What tasks can be taught quickly to untrained volunteers to make effective use of people with more training or experience? 

We’ll be asking these and other questions at tabletop training exercises, which I hope will become a regular practice for my fire department and include partners from the community. Especially from the school.

Do you know who helped me make sense of the notes and messy lists I made on the scene of that tornado response back in 2007? A paraprofessional from our school. That was back before I had any ICS training, and I doubt if she had any, either.

Know who stepped in again after the 2019 roof collapse at a neighboring fire station? Same person. The ability to manage a playground full of kids translates well to a crisis response effort.

The time to figure out how to manage an incident is before it hits and you have 300 would-be volunteers champing at the bit to get to work (or worse, freelancing in areas where electrical lines might still be live). If you think you might be able to help, ask your fire chief or your county’s Emergency Manager for guidance. 

Donna Kallner lives in Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin and is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department.

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