When a series of tornados barreled through portions of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in the spring of 2011, some citizens in Chickamauga, Georgia, found protection underneath their local fire departments’ rigs. At another fire station in western Alabama, local citizens found safe harbor in the basement of their local fire department. They weren’t alone.
According to a recent report from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), fire departments became the go-to institution citizens flocked to in that event.
“Throughout the region, citizens turned to their fire departments for assistance, guidance, and support,” the report stated. Whether local fire chiefs and firefighters like it or not, the local fire department has become the community’s resilient backbone.
“When nobody knew what else to do or where else to go to get help, they showed up at the fire stations. They showed up at firefighters’ homes,” says Cortez Lawrence, a USFA education specialist and the report’s principal investigator. When “things go to hell in a hand basket,” people turn to firefighters, he says.
This critical observation, according to Lawrence, led the USFA to make a very specific recommendation for all fire departments nationwide. “Fire departments must plan on becoming their communities’ ‘agency of last resort,’” the report states. “They need to know the county EOP [emergency operations plan], where resources are, where people and resources are to be collected, logistics distribution and support plans, special needs plans, and other information that people will congregate at the fire hall to gather.”