In the United States, some localities from Oregon to Texas will witness only the totality of the October 14, 2023, annular eclipse (also known as a “ring of fire”), which will result in a partial eclipse for much of the country. During a subsequent event, a far more populated portion of the country will experience the April 8, 2024, total solar eclipse. However, where these two paths cross, some in Texas will view both the 2023 annular eclipse and the 2024 total solar eclipse.
These events provide opportunities for the preparedness community to collaborate and serve as members of eclipse planning committees for their respective localities or states. The 2023 annular eclipse would be a good day to test systems and implementation plans for the more significant 2024 event. Emergency managers and public safety officers could offer their expertise in community preparedness, hazard assessments, risk mitigation, contingency planning, and other special-event best practices.
Some jurisdictions have already completed their viewing event plans, and their sites’ implementation efforts are ready to get underway. Others have yet to begin. Regardless of which event a locality will witness, the preparedness community brings vast strengths to eclipse planning efforts. Since planning for gatherings and events related to an eclipse is often conducted by “professional and amateur astronomers, formal and informal educators, eclipse chasers, science writers, and outreach specialists,” many members of the local or state eclipse planning effort may not have considered including the community’s emergency preparedness and response capabilities or their operational knowledge during planning discussions.
Emergency Preparedness and Response Planning
Special event planning without emergency contingency planning negatively impacts event staff and emergency responders’ ability to adapt and respond to adverse or changing conditions. As such, collaborative efforts between eclipse planning committees and local emergency preparedness and response agencies could guide the testing of local contingency plans and capabilities before the event. From tabletops to full-scale exercises and training can help plan for adverse weather conditions or emergencies on the day of one or both eclipses.
When an emergency arises (e.g., severe weather events, significant traffic congestion or collisions, technological failures, violence) during a large-scale event or gathering, it may require rapid deployment of the Incident Command System (ICS) to manage the incident and any cascading effects. Despite abundant skills and abilities in managing and responding to large-scale events, emergency preparedness and response professionals do not always participate in the planning and logistics of eclipse events. Special event planning uses the same process as planning for emergencies – organizing people, equipment, and supplies so that everything is in the right place at the right time to accomplish a mission and protect lives and property.
In some cases, planners for solar eclipse events are able to formulate ideas and basic plans but then fall short of implementing the strategies and tactics on the ground in the days leading up to and during the event. For example, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Solar Eclipse Task Force described in a plenary session in June 2023 the traffic congestion, crowd control, first responder access, and other public safety and emergency management concerns related to the 2017 eclipse, along with “lessons learned” from that event.
To ensure that public safety issues are addressed in future eclipse planning, emergency managers and public safety professionals can help explain how to transition from planning to operations and promote an understanding of what operational plans and procedures would be beneficial to incorporate before the event. Since preparedness and response professionals regularly build critical skills in putting plans into action on the ground – in exercises or actual events – it makes sense for these professionals to provide guidance and assistance for eclipse events, which may not already be on their planning schedules.
For localities that will benefit from both events’ rare and delightful experiences, collaborative efforts between the eclipse planning committees and emergency planning professionals in the final weeks before the annular eclipse could offer valuable insights. Lessons learned and best practices that emergency planners currently have for planned special events within their jurisdictions could apply to the planning efforts for these anticipated special events, which will span cities and states. Building these relationships will also facilitate the process if an incident occurs during the event and response units need to mobilize.
Pre-Event Action Items
Since planning committee members may be unfamiliar with pre-event exercises and planning checklists, below are some suggestions to help when shifting from planning to preparedness. In the weeks before October 14 or sometime before the end of 2023 for the Total Eclipse of April 8, 2024, the preparedness community should reach out to the eclipse planning committee to assist in leading and designing exercises. They also should work with committee members to develop tabletop exercises with believable scenarios requiring all to participate in decision-making. Examples of field exercises to build awareness and confidence could include mass-casualty drills and readiness for emergency operations centers and dispatch. In rural areas, consider search and rescue exercises.
Even without all the volunteers being available to test the plans, the leaders facilitating any activities related to these eclipse events should test the capabilities to find gaps and address any potential concerns. Following are some, but not all, of the operational matters to consider:
- What are the availability and locations of glasses?
- How will information be conveyed regarding the availability of glasses?
- Will glasses be available before the event or on the day of the event?
- If glasses are available before the day of the event, how will they be distributed?
- Where will first aid personnel and ambulances stage?
- What is the mass-casualty incident capability of the local emergency medical services (EMS) system and emergency room(s) capacity?
- What communications issues and diversion stress-testing should the EMS central receiving facility plan and test for?
- How will COVID and other public health concerns be addressed?
- Will roads be closed on the day of the event? If so, how will that information be provided before and on the day of the event?
- Where will traffic incident management vehicles be staged (locate these vehicles on a map)?
- Are volunteers (e.g., Community Emergency Response Teams [CERT] or Citizens on Patrol) available to assist in traffic control?
- Where will readerboards and portable signage be placed to inform travelers of important information?
- Are the parking lots marked on a map?
- Has the information been shared with all involved in the field test?
- Is the event planner (museum, city, etc.) responsible for parking? If yes, how will that information be conveyed?
- If private organizations will manage parking, how will that information be conveyed?
- Are access and egress ensured for emergency responders?
- Are evacuation routes easily accessible?
Aid and Information Stations
- Will there be aid and information stations?
- What are their locations?
- Do they have or need the property owners’ permission?
- What services will these stations offer?
- Where are they located on a map?
Multi-Disciplinary Collaboration Before and During the Event
The sheer number of visitors could be unprecedented for some communities hosting events for or simply in the path of the October 14, 2023, and April 8, 2024, eclipses. As such, public and private sector agencies, nonprofit organizations, public safety officers, emergency managers, and eclipse planning committees must work together to ensure the safety and security of those participating in eclipse activities and anyone else in the vicinity. Because the success or failure of an event relies on how much attention is paid to plan details, the more time spent on the operational components, the more likely visitors will be to arrive early, stay safe, and leave late, pleased that they were part of an exciting act of Mother Nature.
Mark Howell is Grounded Truths LLC’s director and emergency and fire management specialist. He has 25+ years of public safety experience, including fire, law enforcement, emergency medical services, and emergency management at the local, state, and federal levels, including 14 years with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) full-time in progressive fire and emergency management positions. He is a graduate of the Wildland Fire Apprenticeship Program and the first cohort of the USFS’s Field Command School, an Incident Management Team Academy program designed and taught by the National Incident Management Organization. During the 2017 Great American Eclipse, while a supervisory fire prevention officer on the Malheur National Forest, he served as the federal interagency liaison between the Northeast Oregon National Forests and their federal, state, and local government cooperators and provided substantial planning and operational support to affected communities and jurisdictions within totality in Northeast Oregon.
Laurel J. Radow
Laurel J. Radow, AAS SETF member and Co-chair, AAS Local Planning Working Group. She joined the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), U.S. Department of Transportation in 1996. From 2004 until her retirement at the end of 2016, she served as a member of the FHWA Office of Operation’s Traffic Incident and Events Management Team. In that capacity, she served as program manager for the agency’s Evacuations/Emergencies and Planned Special Events programs and managed a range of Traffic Incident Management tasks. From 2014-2016, she served as vice chair of the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) Standing Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Protection (AMR10). She recently completed her second and final term as chair of the same committee. In addition to co-chairing the TRB at the October 2018 Resiliency Conference (T-RISE), she also served as guest managing editor for the TR News September/October 2021 Issue no. 335,“State of Emergency: What Transportation Learned from 9/11.”