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An increasing number and variety of workers are being called upon to respond to disasters. In 2017 alone, 16 severe weather incidents in the United States, ranging from wildfires to hurricanes, caused more than $1 billion worth of damage. Disasters are unpredictable and can be human-induced (such as a chemical spill or radiation incident) or naturally occurring (such as a flood or an emerging infectious disease outbreak)—any of which, if severe enough, can become a public health crisis.

Like the disasters that prompt them, responses can vary from large and complex to smaller-scale efforts that do not make the news. Disaster response and recovery work require a variety of workers from first responder groups such as law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency medical services to nontraditional responders such as utility workers, construction workers, other skilled support workers, relief workers, and volunteers. Ensuring the safety and health of this diverse group of responders is a vital part of any response.

Examples of workers who commonly respond to disasters

  • Traditional first responders

    • Law enforcement

    • Fire services

    • Emergency medical services

  • Utility workers (such as electrical power line workers)

  • Construction workers and other skilled support

  • Debris removal teams

  • Healthcare personnel

  • Public health personnel

  • Mental health teams

  • Shelter workers

  • Disaster relief workers

  • Volunteers

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, US federal planners recognized the need for a nationwide incident management system, which led to the development of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS provides a whole-community approach for federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government agencies as well as private sector and nongovernmental organizations to work together in planning for, responding to, and recovering from incidents.

The Incident Command System (ICS) is a component of NIMS that grew from concepts used in the United States Forest Service in the 1970s to improve interoperability with other agencies when managing wildfire incidents. This work led to the development of ICS, a system that involves a standard approach to the command, control, and coordination of on-scene incident management. Within ICS, response assets are organized in five functional areas: command, operations, finance/administration, logistics, and planning (Figure 45–1).

Figure 45–1.

Basic Incident Command System (ICS) structure.

An Incident Commander is designated and has overall incident management authority. For small, relatively straightforward responses, Incident Commanders may retain responsibility for responder safety throughout the response, but for more complex responses they may delegate this authority to a Safety Officer. The Safety Officer ensures personnel safety, monitors hazardous and unsafe situations, and prepares a site-specific safety and health plan. Online ICS training is available on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Training website.

Responders work in potentially hazardous environments and can face a multitude of known and novel exposures and safety hazards through the course of their work, which ...

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