When disaster strikes, law-enforcement agencies and the public expect police officers and deputy sheriffs to respond, even when it means leaving their own families behind. The recent onslaught of hurricanes and tropical storms – with names such as Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike – bearing down on the Southeastern United States serve as urgent reminders for all first responders of the importance of preparing their own families to cope with such disasters.

Some agencies are recognizing the toll that disasters can have on their own employees when they are hard at work helping the community while also struggling with the needs of their own loved ones. Nowhere was that more evident than for the police officers and other emergency responders in the greater New Orleans area who had to contend with the destructive power of Hurricane Katrina. Many officers faced the unenviable dilemma of choosing between their agency’s orders and the demands of their family members.

A number of helpful guidelines have been developed in recent years, fortunately, to remind veteran officers and other first responders of the need to adequately prepare their families to cope with a natural disaster – e.g., a hurricane, tornado, flood, or earthquake – in much the same way that these same officers (and their counterparts in various other countries throughout the world) have prepared for potential retaliation from someone whom they have arrested in the past. The key is to first formulate a viable plan that all agree upon, and then execute it before the disaster strikes (or before retaliation can be attempted).

This approach does not represent a change in priorities. It is, rather, not only a simple recognition of reality but also sound public policy, because only when police officers and deputy sheriffs know that their own loved ones are relatively safe can they fully concentrate on carrying out the important tasks they have been assigned to protect the community at large. Following are some suggestions that law-enforcement personnel – and, indeed, all first responders – should keep in mind in future times of disaster, whether natural or manmade:

(1) Evacuation Plan. Agree upon a workable plan for evacuation, and make sure that all members of the family understand it. Also make sure that the family car is in good mechanical condition, and has a full tank of gas. Finally, decide where – i.e., to what specific destination – the family should travel to and the route they should take (include one or more alternative routes if possible).

(2) Batteries. Whether the family goes elsewhere or stays put, make sure that plenty of batteries are on hand, and charge all re-chargeable batteries, including those used on cell phones. Keep some spare batteries on hand, just in case.

(3) Water and Food. Make sure that plenty of drinkable water is on hand. Many agencies recommend having at least three gallons of water per person per day. Keeping a reasonable amount of non-perishable food on hand also is important, as is ensuring that there is a safe and easy way to prepare it.

(4) Generator. To protect against a power failure, purchase a generator and have enough gas on hand for about three days’ use. Test and run the generator regularly, and ensure that other family members not only know how to set it up and run it but also are familiar with the safety precautions applicable to generator operations; for safety reasons keep the generator outdoors (but protected from the weather).

(5) House Inspection. Make sure that the roof does not leak and that all windows and doors are sealed properly. In many areas of the country the installation of hurricane shutters also may be appropriate.

(6) Safe Room. Set up a safe room in the interior or basement area of the house. In addition to being fortified to protect against intruders who may attempt to break in while the officer (or other first responder) is at work, the same room can be used to keep the family safe from natural disasters. Ample survival supplies should be stocked in this protected environment.

Assistance Available From FEMA, ARC

One of the principal differences between sworn public servants and their neighbors is that the latter have the option of evacuating with their families when a major disaster strikes the community. In contrast, law-enforcement personnel and other first responders have no choice but to leave their loved ones behind during the same crisis and depend on the family’s resilience to struggle through, despite their absence.

Today, fortunately, more and more law-enforcement agencies are recognizing the need for the families of their employees to be relatively safe early enough in times of crisis to allow the officer or deputy to concentrate fully on the task at hand.

Whether an officer’s department assists with family preparations or not, it is incumbent upon each officer to ensure the safety of his or her family. Among the many resources that can be tapped to help in individual and family efforts to prepare for a future crisis situation are the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross.

A final footnote: Officers who do not prepare ahead of time – but instead wait until disaster strikes before starting his or her family disaster preparations – will be faced with the same terrible choices that officers involved in the Katrina aftermath and other disaster situations that have occurred in recent years have had to face.

Richard B. Weinblatt

Dr. Richard B. Weinblatt, a former police chief and criminal justice professor, is a well-known lecturer and media commentator. Over the past two decades he has written numerous articles in the fields of law-enforcement, police-management, and a broad spectrum of other issues related to emergency management, domestic preparedness, and similar topics. He holds a bachelor’s degree in the administration of justice, a masters degree of public administration in criminal justice, a doctorate in educational leadership, and is now serving as a professor and program manager for the Criminal Justice Institute at the Seminole Community College in Sanford, Florida.

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