Can We Make Emergency Response More Eco-Friendly? First Responders Learning to Green Operations Before Disaster Strikes

First responders have a list of priorities when they arrive at an emergency. First, they survey the scene and understand potential threats to their well-being or that of those who will come by later. From there, their priorities shift to stabilizing and removing victims from the scene. Dealing with the hazard itself comes next — anything from putting out a house fire to cleaning up hurricane damage. Sustainability is nowhere near the top of this priority list, and it shouldn’t be.

 Emergency ResponseRather, sustainability should be integrated into the emergency response system long before the emergency. An undersea diving rescue team shouldn’t be worrying about whether their flashlights have energy-efficient batteries or not: This is not one of their concerns in the case of an emergency. However, this is not an excuse to avoid adopting eco-friendly practices and materials into the emergency response field. As long as the tools necessary to perform these life-saving tasks work, there is no reason not to adopt them.

Here are a few examples of revisions that can be made to the current roster of emergency materials and protocol.

Water Sustainability for Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are a huge concern for any country, and the ability to provide shelter, food and water to those displaced or left homeless following the event is the top priority for emergency responders. In many cases, the specifications for the natural event leave responders scrambling to adapt to the needs of the people involved, and a ton of material and energy waste results. Facilities are out of order or lacking the proper resources, and there are prevalent shortages of food — and especially water.

During times of natural disaster, it is common for communities to lose their fresh water early on. Having a secondary, sustainable, repeatable and nonenergy-intensive method for collecting fresh water will save lives.

By focusing on finding sustainable sources of fresh water — using renewable and effective filtration systems, for instance — shortages in bottled and imported water can be widely negated. It is also important that communities employ professionals to run these systems before and during a disaster. In the state of emergency, a smooth-running system of water sustainability and eco-friendly practices go hand-in-hand with the welfare of those affected by the disaster.

Repurposing Waste Materials and Debris

Emergency ResponseFollowing the disaster or incident, there is a lot of waste — much of it unnecessary. Piles of broken homes and infrastructure are shipped away to landfills. In the case of large-scale disasters such as tornados, recycling efforts go as far as recycling appliances and other metal materials, but characteristically the rest are disposed of in a landfill. Efficiently removing the mess so rebuilding efforts can get underway is the priority, which makes sense.

However, finding ways to repurpose the debris can save material and building costs in the long term. In some cases, local artisans have gotten involved, finding ways to rebuild houses and furniture with the debris of the former buildings. Finding uses for the leftover material following a disaster can reduce the necessary cleanup, the funds needed to restore a town or city, and the tremendous material and energy waste involved.

Energy Sustainability

Along with fresh water, electrical grids are some of the first things to go following a disaster. Restoring electricity to an area can take weeks or even months, and some form of temporary power is necessary for the meantime. For this, disaster relief organizations like FEMA usually use an array of portable generators. For those living in extreme-weather or disaster-prone areas, personal generators are also common.

Generators are typically powered by diesel and create electrical power by running an efficient motor and feeding off the energy produced. Relying on an external fossil fuel source is an inherent weakness in generators, and long-term use can produce greenhouse gases and lower air quality in an area. With continued use, spills and breakdown of generators often occur, resulting in further pollution of the surrounding area.

Revolutionizing our armada of portable and emergency-response generators would help minimize the impact of emergency response and disaster relief. Certain new models often have spill containment systems in place, and run more efficiently than the often-outdated models still used today. Creating undue pollution across an area already stricken with natural disaster will only create more problems and cleanup in the future.


As humans, we are incredibly adept at responding to difficult situations. Natural disasters that would have killed thousands of people a century ago are now scouted and prepared for days in advance. All across the world, people devote their time to rescuing and preserving lives, helping to ease suffering in terrible situations and providing the necessities of life to go on.

We are also capable of improvement. The emergency response apparatus has been widely overlooked by the sustainability movement, but improvements to several key features can help minimize the environmental impact of rescue and relief operations.