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Structural engineers play key a role in disaster planning and recovery

Today’s news often includes reports about emergencies that develop into disasters. The magnitudes and frequencies of these emergencies require a professional approach to their management. Effective disaster management must involve proactive preparedness based on improved risk assessments and widely increased resilience capabilities. This preparedness must focus on the probable performance of existing and new infrastructure in relation to excessive hazardous impacts of excessive magnitude during normal service life of these assets.

Professional structural engineers have an excellent opportunity to develop more formal connections with emergency service responders and the public through engagement with forensic assessments, strengthening and rehabilitating existing infrastructure, as well as in preparedness, response, recovery and reconstruction activities. Professional structural engineers must be proactive and actively engaged in developing and implementing new initiatives for building resilience. This engagement will promote a common understanding for dealing proactively with emergency and disaster issues rather than strictly being reactive to these disasters.

In addition to emergencies that turn into disasters, there are also many examples in the news about natural disasters. The media presents numerous devastating images from areas affected by natural disasters, from hurricanes to earthquakes and floods. In some cases, professional structural engineers witness the destruction firsthand. Other professional structural engineers experience the devastation when they are sent to disaster zones to provide aid in the immediate aftermath of the event.

We realize that natural disasters can strike whenever and wherever, and therefore It is imperative that a high priority is placed on advance disaster planning for recovery before these disasters occur. The selection of team members, the roles of the team members, the actual strategically developed and documented disaster plan must be distributed and presented to all team members and then actively practiced and updated as newer and improved ideas and techniques, equipment and procedures are discovered.

One important consideration for selection of the engineering team members is to seek out highly trained professional structural engineers, especially those who work extensively in condition assessments, rehabilitation and strengthening, restoration and forensic work related to buildings and other infrastructure. The combined skills of these highly trained professionals will enable the team to make progress in a short amount of time while in disaster areas. Time is critical for initial efforts to save victims and evaluate which structures can be restored. The professional structural engineers focus on what can be saved and restored in contrast to the media focus on the destruction.

Professional structural engineers have a duty before and after disasters strikes. For example, professional structural engineers must design buildings and other infrastructure that can sustain extreme wind, storm surges, flooding, windborne debris and rain-induced landslides. And after the disaster strikes they play a large role in the recovery and cleanup. For example, engineering drones are used to locate stranded people and survey damages in a more efficient and safe manner. Professional structural engineers also will be involved in the demolition, strengthening and repairing and rebuilding of fallen and damaged buildings and other infrastructure.

Professional structural engineers also have very important insights and ideas to share for disaster planning and recovery beyond design solutions. Policy is another important aspect of the planning effort, both pre- and post-disaster, and an area where professional structural engineers have too often been reluctant to become involved. There is a great need for these professionals to contribute their technical expertise to policy discussions and viewing their participation as part of their ethical responsibilities.

Effective disaster planning and recovery needs to include scenario planning and imagining the impossible that may happen. There is a need for a change of attitude to move away from just fixing whatever is failing. Professional structural engineers involved in the design and construction of buildings and other infrastructure have critical skills that can be applied to long term resilience of structures, rather than simply recovery.

Professional structural engineers play an important role on the team of professionals at the active scene of a disaster. Their primary role is to define the safest access to collapsed structures to rescue deeply buried live victims. Their role can involve shoring, monitoring, or adjusting the team’s approach to enter structures in the least dangerous way. Frequently there simply is no safe way to get access to the collapsed buildings.  The public needs to be warned that these structures are in an active state of collapse and there often are many aftershocks and other events that occur to impact a damaged structure. Professional structural engineers play a critical role in helping to assess and monitor the status of the structure and to determine when rescue efforts may be initiated.

Teams that respond to disasters are multi-disciplinary and this means the professional structural engineers need to work with other team members that include emergency medical technicians to treat minor injuries, doctors to care for the team members and conduct field surgeries as needed for the extraction of victims, dog handlers to find victims, logistics personnel to manage the operation, and technical search technicians to pinpoint victims that the search and rescue dogs have detected.

After as many victims as possible have been identified and rescued, professional structural engineers change their focus to restoration. Their secondary role as professional structural engineers is to assess the damage and recommend which structures can be reoccupied immediately or reoccupied with some supplemental shoring or repairs and which structures or parts of structures should be avoided and closed off to entry. Quite often there are some areas where there is total destruction, as well as other areas that are entirely unaffected. In reality, this seemingly incongruous result is the nature of these natural disasters.

Here is a quote that provides sage advice relative to disaster planning & recovery.

“We cannot stop natural disasters but we can arm ourselves with knowledge so many lives wouldn’t have to be lost if there was enough disaster preparedness.” Petra Nemcova, Czech model, television host and philanthropist who founded the Happy Hearts Fund.

Glenn Ebersole –

Glenn Ebersole is a professional engineer and is the Business Development Manager for CVM and CVMNEXT Construction in King of Prussia. He can be reached at gebersole@cvmnext.com or 610-964-2800, ext. 155.

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