The Disaster Relief System

This lesson will discuss the Disaster Relief System.


  • What is the Disaster Relief System.
  • Why is it important that you know how the system operates.
  • What kind of relief you can expect.
  • When can you expect the relief.
  • A quick report on the current status of our Disaster Relief System.
  • Why it is so important to be ready.

So, what is the Disaster Relief System?


Before we address what a Disaster Relief System is, we should quickly review what the definition of a disaster is:

A disaster is a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impact, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.

Bottom Line:  A disaster is an event that overwhelms all available resources.


  • It comes down to having the bare essentials in order to survive.
  • You need food – but there is not food around.
  • You need drinking water – but there isn’t any around.
  • You need safe shelter – but you can’t find it.
  • You need medical help – you call 911 – but no one is coming.

So, with that said, let’s get into a discussion about the disaster relief systems.

How the Disaster Relief System Operates.


It is important to understand how these relief systems operate.  You want to use this knowledge to create a synergy between your Family Plan and the resources of the responding agencies.   By leveraging the relief systems, you will be able to multiply both your chances and your family chances for survival.

  • The better you know how these systems work the better you will know:
  • What type of help you can expect, and when you can expect it.
  • What won’t be coming and what you are going to be responsible for.
  • Leverage the help and resources that will be made available, and plan for those resources that will not be available, or will not be available for some time.

Different Types of Disaster Relief Systems.


Different countries will handle how they manage the response, the resources, and the support in different ways.

Japan uses a module system called “Disaster Medical Assistance Teams” (DMAT).  These consists of small teams (usually 5 members in a team) which are located throughout the country.  When disaster relief is required, an alert goes out and the system sends out several small teams or responders to offer aid and assistance.  The teams’ objective is to treat and to move patients as quickly as possible to the outskirts of the disaster area and then go back in to save more patients.  The Japanese military is then used to transport the patients to the hospitals.  This system dispatches the relief teams into a disaster zone much faster – but the resources that they will be able to bring with them are very limited.

•  Pros: Smaller more agile teams that can offer faster response times.

•  Cons: Will be limited with what they can do once they arrive.

The United States uses a more centralized system.  The resources and relief teams must be assembled and transported into the disaster zone.  This system takes a longer time for the relief teams to get into the disaster zone – but once they arrive – they will have almost everything they need with them.

  • Pros: Larger response force with more resources and the capacity to accomplish much more.
  • Cons: Will take a longer time to get the responders on site to offer assistance.

As the definition of a disaster states:  All Available Resources will be overwhelmed.  This means that resources will need to be brought in from other regions: County, State, Federal and even possibly International sources may need to be involved.


Any and all support organizations [including the Red Cross] need to be invited to come into a disaster zone.  This means that the people from FEMA sitting in Washington DC see on the news that a Hurricane just wiped out the Gulf Coast – they cannot take it upon themselves and just go in with a response.  They need to be invited into the disaster zone.  This responsibility falls on the shoulders of the Governor of the state(s).

The reason that these support organizations need to be invited in is due to the logistics, supplies, resources, etc., that need to be coordinated and in place even before the support personnel come in to the disaster zone.  The disaster zone needs to be surveyed for damage and danger spots.  The host (the group asking for the help) needs to determine exactly what they need, before they can even ask for any help.  They also need to be ready to support the relief organizations that will be coming in: shelter (housing), food, sanitation facilities, etc.

The host may or may not have the capabilities to coordinate the support efforts – if they don’t – the support functions will move up the chain of command to a group who does have the capabilities.  This is especially true with smaller communities.  Depending upon the size of the disaster, there can be literally a small army of people coming in and they will be coming with massive amounts of supplies.  This all needs to be coordinated.  If you just bring people into a disaster area without a plan, all that will happen is even more chaos and confusion than what was already there.

The coordination of the responding organizations and resources is a huge challenge to both the host and the responders.  So when you bring the support groups in:

  • You need to be organized.
  • Be ready to handle the people and resource.
  • Know exactly what you are going to have them do once they do get there.

The Incident Command System.  ICS


The United States uses the Incident Command System (ICS) to manage their relief responses. This system is broken down into the following units:

  • Command: Organizing, managing, and coordinate with other agencies, elected officials, and the public.
  • Finance: Responsible for financial management and accountability on the incident.
  • Logistics: Provides all of the personnel, equipment, and services require managing the incident.  Focus is on Service and Support.
  • Operations: The “doers” in the organization where the real work is done.  Charged with carrying out Commands directions.
  • Planning: Supports Command and Operations.  Gathers information on past, present, and future information about the incident.  Responsible for both Resource and Situation Status on a Real-Time-Basis.

Side Note: Now that you see how complex of an operation a disaster relief effort is – you can see why it takes days and maybe even weeks to get everything together and everybody in place. This is the reason you need a plan. You need to be prepared for this time of getting things together. You will need to be responsible for yourself and your family during this time period.

The following comments come from: Disaster Response: Principles of Preparation and Coordination, by Erik Auf der Heide.

The United States adopted the “Incident Command System” ICS as their structure to manage and control resources during a disaster.  This system was developed after a series of wildfires caused deaths and destruction in southern California in 1970.  Federal, state, and local fire services involved in the fire siege recognized hundreds of problems with their response and coordination during the fires.  The ICS was developed to address these problems and offer a structured way to manage a disaster response.

The ICS described here is a set of personnel, policies, procedures, facilities, and equipment integrated into a common organizational structure designed to improve emergency response operations of all types and complexities.

The following organizational chart shows who is in charge and the detailed reporting relationships.


First of all… all of these positions are important.  But the position that we will have the most interactions with is the Information Officer.

Side Note: Regarding the Incident Commander: Depending upon the size of the relief effort, the Incident Commander may be wearing several hats. This person can be very instrumental in getting you the information you need. If it is a larger response, most of what you need will be delegated to the Information Officer. So, the balance of this discussion will be focused on the Information Officer.


The Information Officer:  This individual is responsible for the assembly of and the distribution of 3 Key pieces of information.

•  Information that is to be fed to the disaster community:  Warnings and Instructions.  This will be specific information for you located in the disaster zone.  This is going to be where you will get your information regarding what is happening, what is going on, what you should be doing now.

•  Assembling information for the Press & Dignitaries.  Politicians and the news services will want to know what is going on.   The Information Officer will want to control the information given to make sure the news is being reported accurately and not be distorted.   This is more generic information which will be fed to people located outside of the disaster zone area.

•  Information for outsiders (people located outside of the disaster zone) regarding inquires about loved ones located inside the disaster zone.  This service will also be available for those who are located inside the disaster zone and are separated or missing. The information officer will gather and consolidate information coming in from the following sources:

•  Hospitals

•  Police / Fire / EMS

•  Coroner’s Office

•  Public Shelters

•  Sherriff’s Office

All of this information will be consolidated and posted in the “Local Victim Information Center”.  In situations where the disaster is bigger than just the local level, several local information centers will be consolidated into a “Regional Disaster Victim Information Center”.  This is where you will go to get information about missing, lost, and separated family members.

Contact information for these centers will be broadcast on all of the news services and channels.  Usually a phone number will be given out and you will need to call to start the inquiry process.  Make sure that you have an emergency radio to monitor these news feeds.

If you are inside the disaster zone area and have no phone services and you are missing loved ones.  You most likely can get help by asking the Police/ Fire / EMS or your local C.E.R.T. volunteers.  They can direct you, or advise you, how to get in contact with the Victim Information Centers.

CERT-Team--OptimizedC.E.R.T. [Community Emergency Response Teams].  These are F.E.M.A. sponsored training programs that are made available nationally to local citizens who want to be better prepared and to be able to help with the response following a disaster. They will be trained in various disciplines and can be used to supplement or assist the local professional emergency responders who will probably be overwhelmed during and right after the disaster.    If you would like to learn more about C.E.R.T. or possibly even want to join your local team, click on this link and it will take you to the FEMA site that goes into detail on the C.E.R.T. training program. C.E.R.T. Training Program

Depending upon the type and extent of the disaster, there may be other organizations that you can get help from.  The National Guard will be there.  The biggest and most recognizable organizations are the Red Cross and the Red Crescent organizations.  There also might be local community organizations, religious groups, even business willing to give a helping hand.  You will need to keep your eyes open [and ears open] to learn what is available and where you need to go to get the help.  The local police, fire department, EMS and/or the CERT personnel, and even the Public Information Officer can guide you in the right direction.

But the important thing to keep in mind is that most of these services will not be available until “they are invited in.”  This may take days or even weeks before the roads are cleared to be able to enter the disaster zone, the area is declared safe enough for them to come in, and the area prepared to receive the support personnel.  This is what you are preparing for – this time period before you will actually see supplies and assistance coming into the disaster zone.  You will be responsible for taking care of yourself and family during this time period.  This is why you need a plan and you need to be ready.


What type of help can you expect from these organizations?


Initially, the local first responders (Police, Fire, EMS, and CERT) will be first on site.

  • They will be focusing on protecting Life first and Property second.
  • They will not be helping you move a tree so that you can get your car out.
  • They will be looking for injured and trapped people who need immediate assistance.
  • They will be looking for property that has the possibility to be saved.
  • They will be looking for any hazards that may develop into bigger hazards.
  • They will be assessing the damages so that they can report back to the local authorities: the types of damage, the extent of the damage, and other potential dangers that may need to be addressed.

If you or any of your family members are in need of immediate help – you will need to communicate this to these people.  If the land line phones or cell phones are still working, then call and let them know what your situation is and where you are located.  If phones are out, then 2-way radios, whistles, horns, mirrors, waving sheets – do whatever you need to do to get their attention.

The next step will be immediate local support. This stage will emphasize finding missing or lost people.  Are these people trapped or are they just separated from their family units.  You need to advise the authorities if someone is missing and what their last location was – or may have been.  Have they been rushed to the hospital?  The local authorities may be able to advise you which hospitals the injured are being transported to.

 You may need temporary shelter, clothing, water, food or assistance for minor (non-life threatening) medical issues.




  • You don’t have the necessary supplies that you need.
  • You don’t know how to find what you need.
  • You don’t know how to make what you need.

If this is the situation; you will be directed where to go and hopefully get the supplies and services that you need.  Keep in mind, immediately following a disaster, key supplies will be in great demand and will go fast.  Most likely you will be sent to a public shelter.  These places will be very sparse and you will be given rations for as long as they last.  Also, public shelters can be very dangerous places; ranging from the human perspective (gangs and mob mentality) to having the high potential for transmission of infectious diseases.  Public shelters are prime incubators for many issues.   If you have no other choices, no other options, then go to a public shelter.   Remember:  “Desperate People will do Desperate Things during Desperate Times.”


When can you expect the relief to arrive.


Depending upon the extent of the damage, there may be a delay of several days, maybe even weeks, before you see supplies start coming into your area.   Don’t forget about the additional time to distribute the supplies, add another couple of days for that.


This is the Time Period you have been preparing for.  How do you and your family survive this time of waiting for the supplies and assistance to arrive.  Does the images from Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, come to mind?

Eventually, hopefully, the supplies and assistance will make its way into your location.  Things will slowly come back to normal.  This is where you start your Recovery stage; which will be addressed in a different section.

A lot of people are gambling that the disaster relief system will work as it is laid out; the government will take care of them.  The government won’t let them down.  Well, before you bank on taking that position, please continue reading the next section and some potential downfalls with the status on our current system.  If this doesn’t motivate you to prepare – I don’t know what will.


So, let’s have a quick discussion regarding FEMA;  the federal agency that is in charge of our relief system.


FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency –was created in 1978 with the primary purpose to coordinate the response to a disaster that has occurred in the United States and that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities.  The governor of the state in which the disaster occurs must declare a state of emergency and formally request from the president that FEMA and the federal government respond to the disaster.

The problem with FEMA is that its track record in responding and helping people during a disaster is dismal at best.  Remember Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy?

In 2005, the U.S. Congress mandated that FEMA build a logistics supply chain management system to coordinate their efforts with other agencies and suppliers in order to be able to “QUICKLY” distribute food, water and blankets to victims.

A report dated October 2, 2014 by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General, John Roth concluded;

•  Despite spending $240 million over nine years, FEMA cannot be certain its supply chain management system will be effective during a catastrophic disaster.

•  One of FEMA’s prime objectives is to immediately provide survivors with 3 days of basic emergency supplies. Presently, this supply chain system is not up to the task.

•  FEMA’s system is so flawed that it can’t interface or communicate with its partners, making it nearly impossible to locate emergency supplies.

FEMA is constantly on the news regarding misuse of funds and spending practices.  These misuses range from available federal grants to aid victims of a disaster that were never used or given to victims.  At least $4.7 million in federal grants for victims in Mississippi had either not been used appropriately or not been used at all.  To misallocating $5.8 million of relief funds during Hurricane Sandy.  Two years after the hurricane, FEMA is trying to go back to those victims asking them for the money back.  Good luck FEMA.  That money has been spent and is now gone.

Now, that you understand WHAT, HOW, and WHEN the relief systems work.  It should be very apparent why it is so important that you be ready for any type of disaster(s).

 This is what you should be taking away from this lesson:


  1. What is the Disaster Relief System.
  2. There are different types of system in different parts of the world.
  3. Why is it important that you know how the Disaster Relief System works.
  4. What kind of relief you can expect to get.
  5. When you can expect that relief to arrive.
  6. The current status of our (the US Based System) Disaster Relief System.
  7. Why is it so important to BE READY.


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